After a bumpy year-and-a-half – when all attention has been on cutting costs, preserving cash, and steering a way through the turbulence – aviation’s course is set for recovery. But will that mean a return to the world as was? Unlikely. More than ever, airlines will have to devise resilient business models, with a focus on sustainability, efficiencies, and services that impress and retain passengers.

That is where the concept of the connected aircraft comes in. Satellite-enabled connectivity is not just a nice-to-have. It is a technology that can deliver tremendous cost savings for carriers, environmental benefits, and advantages for passengers during what will be a crucial rebuilding time for the industry. Inmarsat Aviation is confident that its market-leading global mobile connectivity and expertise will help airlines on this journey.

“As we look to recovery and ensuring long-term resilience, there will be no one-size-fits-all approach,” says Philip Balaam, President of Inmarsat Aviation. “However, it will remain important that airlines differentiate for customers. Digitisation and innovation will be crucial to driving efficiencies, reducing environmental impact and improving passenger experience.”

Taking the digital aircraft revolution to another level

Now more than ever, airlines are looking for every cost saving possible and the operational agility to unlock commercial and performance opportunities. Airlines could save up to $15 billion a year with a satellite-enabled connected aircraft policy, suggests a report by the London School of Economics (published in association with Inmarsat Aviation), titled Sky High Economics. This includes steps such as avoiding inefficient flight routes that waste fuel, not just improving fuel consumption by up to 5%, but helping the industry achieve its target of reducing CO2 emissions by half by 2050.

When it comes to the cockpit, Inmarsat Aviation’s latest offering – SwiftBroadband-Safety (SB-S) –has taken the digital aircraft revolution to another level. With linefit positions secured on Airbus and Boeing aircraft, and a new lightweight terminal, SB-S is the ultimate global, secure IP connection for operations and safety communications. It has been flying with select airlines for several years now and is constantly evolving, as new applications become available, ensuring that customers always have access to the latest technology.

A today solution for a today problem

The contribution that outdated air traffic management (ATM) makes to aviation’s carbon footprint – not to mention passenger satisfaction – is sometimes understated. Inmarsat estimates that poor ATM infrastructure makes airlines burn 23% more fuel than they would otherwise. Simply allowing aircraft to safely fly closer together would hugely increase the capacity of the skies, cutting delays and improving efficiency.

Inmarsat’s Iris programme, powered by SB-S, enables real-time collaboration between pilots, air traffic controllers and an airline’s operation centre using cost-effective, secure and highly resilient datalink communications. As a result, they can calculate the shortest available routes, determine flight trajectories and cruise at optimum altitudes, while also receiving the latest digital information, such as weather updates. This not only improves airspace usage to accommodate future growth, but also allows airlines to minimise delays, save fuel and reduce the environment impact of their operations.

Iris capabilities have been enhanced recently with the introduction of next-generation ATN/IPS (Aeronautical Telecommunication Network using Internet Protocol Suite) satellite communications, which are currently being finalised as the global standard for air traffic control communications to and from the aircraft.

Iris, which has been developed in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), is expected to rollout in Europe by 2023 and then on a global basis over the next decade. It is currently being assessed on flights across America as part of the Boeing ecoDemonstrator programme, in partnership with Alaska Airlines.

Additional cost savings and benefits

SB-S offers a range of additional benefits too. The London School of Economics’ Sky High Economics study suggests that satcom-connected virtual crew rooms could cut crew lateness by half. Crew scheduling issues account for 3% of flight delays, equating to a cost of $3.6 billion. Global mobile connectivity technology can turn aircraft into a virtual crew room, eliminating the need for face-to-face pre-flight briefings and improving on-time departures.

Meanwhile, telemedicine technology – which enables medical experts to communicate with crews dealing with an ill passenger from anywhere in the world – could avoid the need for costly emergency diversions. These can cost an airline up to $200,000 in fuel costs and compensation for passengers, the LSE report goes on to say.

Predictive maintenance is another advantage of mobile connectivity. Every airline wants to avoid the disruption of an unscheduled maintenance event – the dreaded AOG, or aircraft-on-ground, scenario. By constantly monitoring the performance of engines and systems, faults can be identified before they become problems, reducing costly AOGs and improving operational reliability.

Real-time weather data is another plus of satellite connectivity, allowing pilots to detour around thunderstorms, turbulence and other weather hazards. Lightning strikes can, of course, cause severe damage to airframes – adding to the AOG headache. But the main benefit is passenger comfort, as even the most seasoned air traveler wants to avoid a rollercoaster ride while eating dinner at 36,000ft.

Embracing the digital connectivity opportunity in the years ahead could be key to airlines making it through what is certain to be one of the industry’s most challenging periods. “There will clearly be winners and losers,” asserts Balaam. “My conviction is that the survivors will take a strategic, agile and technology-led approach, and they will be the ones to bounce back quicker and stronger.”