Business jets offer passengers the opportunity to work when they are flying – just try having a confidential conversation on a commercial flight – but passengers increasingly want to connect with others on the ground.
James Hardie, managing director at Rockwell Collins’ ARINCDirect, which provides a range of services to business aircraft, calls this “inflight productivity.”
Hardie says that technology is changing the way that people use business jets. He says business jets used to be about saving time at airports, but now they have become offices in the air. Passengers can send e-mails, make telephone calls from their own smartphones and hold video conferences whilst flying to their next face-to-face meeting. “People talk about this technology as ‘non-essential,’ but you would be surprised how often it grounds an aircraft,” says Hardie.
“It is about performance from A to B,” says David Stanley, vice present at ARINCDirect. “Passengers can work all day on the flight, they don’t just have to sleep anymore. Wi-Fi is increasingly something that people expect when they buy or charter a private jet in the same way that people expect it in a hotel or coffee shop. “The feedback that we get from customers is that we want the same that we get at home and in the office,” Stanley adds.
Hardie says that aircraft brokers have had sales that have fallen through as a result of faulty and insufficient cabin technology. “If an aircraft does not have internet connectivity, it will affect its resale value,” he says.
Chris Moore, chief commercial officer at Satcom Direct, another specialist business aviation communications company, says he has had similar experiences when dealing with his customers. “They will live with a problem on the aircraft, but they will not live with the internet not working,” he says.
In the US large operators, such as JetSuite, NetJets and Wheels Up, provide customers with free air-to-ground Wi-Fi connectivity through products like Aircell’s Gogo Biz system. While land-based antennas are cheaper than satellite antennas, the disadvantage of an air-to-ground system is that connectivity is lost if the aircraft strays further than 50 miles from the shore. However, NetJets also provides satellite connectivity through Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband on its Global 5000 and Global 6000 jets, which have enough range to cross the Atlantic.
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Wheels Up says that only three or four aircraft in its fleet of almost 30 King Airs tend to exceed their 2.5 gigabyte monthly limit, which retails at $2,395 per month – with each additional megabyte priced at $1.95 – according to the Gogo Biz website. JetSuite passengers are apparently more data-hungry, with the company’s fleet of Phenom 100 and Cessna Citation CJ3 each consuming around 4 gigabytes each month.
Air-to-ground connectivity is not currently available in Europe, so aircraft must use satellite systems – choosing between L-band or Ku-band frequencies – if they want to offer in-flight connectivity. Passengers can expect to pay somewhere between $50 and $100 per hour for what is considered to be a typical amount of data usage, according to SatCom Direct.
The higher cost of internet access in Europe – and slower speeds, according to one Eastern European operator – has meant that demand is lower than in the US. Patrick Margetson-Rushmore, chief executive of London Executive Aviation, says the majority of the company’s charter customers choose not to turn on the Wi-Fi despite the fact that it is available on most of their aircraft.
Surprisingly, NetJets Europe, the largest business jet operator in the continent, only offers Wi-Fi connectivity on its Bombardier Global 6000s, but the company says it is currently carrying out analysis on installing Wi-Fi across its entire fleet.
One of the big talking points at the moment is the introduction satellite systems that use Ka-band frequencies, which promise to offer faster internet access and potentially, lower costs.
Inmarsat, a British satellite telecommunications company, anticipates global coverage and full Ka-band capabilities in the third quarter of 2015. Honeywell is the exclusive hardware provider for the I5 Ka-Band satellites, and after successful antenna testing at the end 2014, it believes that it will have commercial pre-type approved equipment by August.
One of Satcom Direct’s products is its SkyShield filter. A key feature is restricting your mobile device from automatically consuming large amounts of data – such as software updates – as soon as you connect to the SwiftBroadband internet connection.
Essentially, it gives the passenger the power to set the level of data that is allowed on board the aircraft. “We all want to manage our own content,” says Moore. “If people are using lots and lots of data, we push them into a higher plan to save money.”
Passengers are also able to bypass restrictions that may be in place in a certain jurisdictions, so if you are flying through Chinese airspace, for example, you are able to access Google, Twitter and Facebook.
Satcom Direct has seen Internet Protocol (IP) services grow by 53 per cent with voice communications growing by a smaller 33 per cent. Moore says this section of the market is set to grow even further, with newer business jet models such as the Gulfstream G650 and the Dassault Falcon 7X running their cockpits via IP. The G650’s on board refrigerator even has its own IP address, which is used to send messages to the FBO when it is running low on supplies.
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Although SatCom Direct was founded as a voice communication company, the most frequently used service amongst its customers is now e-mail, followed by web browsing (social media sites are the most popular) and instant messaging services such as WhatsApp.
As technology slows catching up with culture and inflight connectivity becomes more accessible, the consensus amongst the industry is that the next step will be streaming television. “The big one is going to be live sport,” says Moore. “We have really over spec’d our router, because technology changes at such a rapid rate.”