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JetBlue partner ViaSat addresses likely delay of Ka satellite launch

A likely further delay to the launch of ViaSat's high-capacity Ka-band satellite, ViaSat-1, is not expected to impact the timeline for offering in-flight connectivity on JetBlue Airways' fleet, a top ViaSat executive told Air Transport Intelligence and Flightglobal today.

ViaSat-1 was expected to be launched into orbit on 29 September. However, yesterday a Russian-built Proton rocket "experienced a launch failure, resulting in the apparent total loss of the [unrelated] Ekspress-AM4 communications satellite", Raymond James analysts Chris Quilty and Ryan Rackley said in a research note.

"International Launch Services (ILS), the operator of the Proton rocket, has initiated an accident investigation and will likely suspend all launch activity until the investigation is complete. Depending on the nature of the failure, the investigation could range from as little as three weeks (quality control problems) to as much as six months (major design issues). Given the exceptional operating history of the Proton rocket family, we suspect the stand-down will extend for a period of weeks rather than months."

The Proton launch failure, say the analysts, "will almost assuredly trigger a further launch delay for ViaSat-1". They note that while delays of this nature "are not uncommon in the satellite industry" the ViaSat-1 programme "has suffered an unusual number of delays since the programme was first announced in January 2008 with a targeted launch date in 'early-2011'"

One such delay occurred in January of this year, when the VSAT-1 satellite was damaged while being moved for testing by Loral. By the summer, the launch date "was pushed out further due to scheduling conflicts with other priority launches".

ViaSat is working with JetBlue unit LiveTV to bring Ka-band-supported connectivity to JetBlue's fleet and some 200 United-Continental domestic aircraft. The ViaSat-1 satellite coverage will overlap a large portion of ViaSat's current WildBlue satellite coverage in the United States and will add a large amount of capacity.

"We don't yet know what impact the AM4 launch anomaly will have on our ViaSat-1 launch schedule; it is simply too early to tell at this point," said ViaSat strategy director Bill Sullivan. "However, it is not likely that a ViaSat-1 launch delay will impact our JetBlue roll-out schedule since the first aircraft isn't scheduled to fly until roughly a year from now."

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