Civil aircraft operators have long discussed the possibility of using in-flight broadband connectivity for operational benefits such as providing live satellite pictures to electronic flight bags (EFBs).
But one carrier is no longer simply talking about real-time updates for EFBs. Having relaunched its Ku-band satellite-based FlyNet high-speed internet service on overseas flights, Lufthansa is getting ready to bring robust connectivity to its cockpits in the coming months.
"Our plan is to bring the benefit of live satellite pictures, of volcanic ash charts if they are required, and of course updated wind data into the processing power of the EFB so that we can recalculate flight plans much more efficiently than ever before," says Lufthansa Airbus A340 captain Andreas Ritter, who heads up the carrier's EFB activities.
Ritter, who was speaking in Frankfurt as Lufthansa prepared to relaunch f FlyNet for passengers, says: "We need to do this step by step, talk to authorities, talk to fleet managers, and do it wisely. Nobody wants pilots surfing the internet during the flight, but everyone wants pilots to have a good clear picture of what's happening and what's relevant for their flight. And for this it's a very good idea to tunnel through the internet into the company network and provide the intranet information, which they require, and we can do this"
Lufthansa already assigns each of its pilots a laptop, which connects to a docking station in the cockpit, as part of its fleet-wide Class II EFB retrofit programme.
This Class II EFB, which is helping Lufthansa rid itself of 17 million charts per year, "is the end system, [and] enables us to have modern processing power, but [at present] there is no connectivity", notes Ritter. As such, the briefing package that pilots receive at the beginning of the flight slowly gets outdated and becomes less and less accurate.
Lufthansa believes that connected EFBs will reduce delays and allow its pilots to make more informed decisions during flight.
"From my perspective," says Ritter, "the biggest change is we enable the pilots to make better operational decisions. That could mean that we have wiser fuel decisions, but it means especially that we have wiser rerouting possibilities. I have a better calculation when I do a step climb than with the very limited processing power of the flight management system, or have a lateral re-rerouting, like a track change or a speed change, so for all dimensions, we can have operational changes.
"And of course it's a big safety benefit if something disturbs the flow of traffic, like snow, like terrorists, like [air traffic] strikes or a national phenomena of any kind."
Asked if the carrier is concerned that hackers could use connectivity to initiate an in-flight attack on flight-critical domains, Ritter says protection from such attacks is "the big advantage of our Class II EFB system", which is in no way connected to any system that controls the aircraft. So, "in a worse case scenario" if the pilot loses the EFB, "it's not like losing an engine or flight management systems".
When Lufthansa first began offering FlyNet in-flight connectivity to passengers in 2003, via Boeing's Connexion service, the focus "was strictly on the passenger side, but it was never meant to exclude the cockpit", says Ritter. Before the carrier could bring FlyNet to its pilots, however, Boeing pulled the plug on Connexion, as the business model was unsustainable.
This time around, Lufthansa has partnered with Panasonic Avionics to revive connectivity on the 69 aircraft already carrying Connexion equipment, including Mitsubishi antennas, as well as to fit the rest of its long-haul fleet with a solution that includes new EMS antennas. The carrier is also studying options for fitting its short- and medium-haul aircraft with connectivity.
In addition to real-time EFB applications, Lufthansa can exploit the connectivity pipe for real-time health monitoring. The carrier already uses ACARS to provide various updates during flight, but the bigger Ku-band pipe that supports FlyNet will allow far greater data transfer.
Panasonic Avionics chief executive Paul Margis says cabin connectivity "is really the tip of the iceberg" in terms of what a carrier can do with a big connectivity pipe.
"I think a connected airplane and more bandwidth, and less expensive bandwidth, means more opportunity to improve your operational efficiency and to bring a better overall product to the passengers. So from an avionics standpoint, whether it's EFB [or] engine telemetry - all are opportunities for getting faster data. We've seen a great interest in the marketplace for that."