Internet gets into the mile high club

During January, something new happened on a Boeing 747. Passengers on board Lufthansa Flight LH418 from Frankfurt to Washington DC were able to plug into a LAN socket under their seat and get a full internet service at 35,000 feet.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  April 29, 2003

I|~||~||~|This month, a trial of a full internet system for airline passengers comes to an end. It was historic. For the first time, passengers were able to use their laptops to access the internet from 35 000 ft and get a full internet service in real time. Once up and running, you would hardly notice that you were not sitting in your own office or at home on the internet. The service was operated by Lufthansa and ConneXion by Boeing and called FlyNet.

There are other companies and airlines offering a service that might seem similar, but they are not. Verizon’s JetConnect, for instance, which is currently being fitted and operated on Continental and United airlines does not (yet) offer two-way e-mails and general internet surfing. The service only allows you access to specific news and financial data from an onboard server that is updated every 15 minutes. You do have real-time Instant Messaging (MSN Messenger etc.) and text messaging (SMS outbound) and can message from seat to seat on the aircraft using your own laptop and the Verizon Airphone. Future Verizon plans for the system are full two-way (in- and out-bound) e-mails and online shopping. Continental are asking passengers to pay US $5.99 per flight segment.

However, Verizon’s JetConnect does have an advantage over FlyNet: it is here now. The Lufthansa FlyNet service is only in a three-month trial stage and will not be rolled out to the company’s 80 long-haul aircraft until the middle of next year.

A fully fledged internet service is an exciting idea. As a passenger, I know that I would like it. Apart from the general entertainment value of surfing and using the internet to fill in those hours between Dubai and London, there are real advantages to be had. Access to e-mail and virtual private networks mean that businessmen are able to get into their corporate intranet and then have full access to all the corporate information that they would normally have at their desk in the office. You really can do work and get those e-mails out while you are on the plane. Flying time is no longer downtime, and you can, “arrive in better shape.”

Just like the idea of supplying non-stop television to the passenger seat via satellite, internet onboard the aircraft is seductive. As an inflight service differentiator that airlines the world over pursue, it seems to be gold dust. But even gold dust must make business sense. Before airlines will adopt the technology, it must be reliable, cost effective and passengers must want it enough to pay for it, otherwise it runs the danger of being just another cost that the airline must absorb to keep up with their competition.

One airline spokesperson dismissed the trial, saying that it is just a trial; there is no evidence that it is cost effective; and that it is quite likely that business passengers would expect the service to included in the price of their ticket. The spokesperson said that it was doubtful that the service would survive the trial. Other regional airlines have refrained from comment, one saying only that the “subject is still under study.”
Is the technology reliable? Will it be cost effective and will passengers pay for it? When I used the trial service it worked well for the hour and a half that I was hooked up.

The FlyNet trial was put together by a collection of companies, mostly orchestrated by Lufthansa Technik. Boeing was the major partner for both antennas and through ConneXion by Boeing, the satellite distribution system. “Then we needed routers and switches from Cisco. Lufthansa Technik developed the interfaces to match the data stream delivered by the distribution system to the routers and thence through the network to passengers,” August-Wilhelm Henningsen, Lufthansa Technik Chairman, told Aviation Business at a Frankfurt Press conference in January.

“The technology is available. All we needed to do was to bring it together reliably and safely for the 250 people on the plane. That is why we have so many partners,” he said. Boeing was a major partner both for the antennas and the satellite distribution system onboard the aircraft, which was done by ConneXion by Boeing. Lufthansa Technik interfaced the Cisco hardware to the plane and the ConneXion by Boeing distribution system, and ensured that all delicate electronic hardware worked in the very dirty electrical environment of a 747.

In principle, the system uses TV transponders on geostationery communications satellites accessed for the purposes of the trial from ground stations in Switzerland and the US Atlantic coast. The uplink from the ground to the plane is currently running on the KU band, 12.5 - 18 GHz and this delivers up to 3 Mbits/s of data. The downlink from the plane to ground delivers 125 kbits/s. But in full operation, Lufthansa Technik says that the uplink speeds could go as high as from 5 to 20 Mbits/s. What I was seeing at the seat felt to me like ISDN speeds (I had no way of actually measuring data speeds). A Lufthansa Technik spokesman on the flight with us told us that measurements taken on previous flights indicated just below ISDN speeds (64 kbits/s) with 70 users on the network simultaneously.

Two satellites are used in the trial to cover the Atlantic from Frankfurt to Washington, and I was told that between six to eight satellites would give full global coverage.
Each aircraft is fitted with a proprietary Boeing phased-array receive and transmit antenna that has been developed from one used to receive TV pictures onboard an aircraft inflight for an unidentified Middle East customer. To quote Boeing, “the phased-array antenna provides enhanced response to directional changes by steering signals electronically, permitting instantaneous and continuous connections between satellites and customer aircraft.”

Boeing also says that an agreement has been signed with Mitsubishi Electric Corp. to design and build the next-generation antenna, which is expected to be available for commercial installation in early 2004.

The fact that the antenna is steerable leads to an interesting idea. Unlike your satellite dish at home, the antenna on the plane must be able to track the satellite and this can be exploited to generate cheap bandwidth for the system to use. Geostationery satellites have a finite lifetime because they need to constantly monitor their position in the sky and adjust it. To do this they need fuel. When the fuel runs out, the satellite drifts and becomes useless for TV purposes; it is often then retired despite the fact that electronically, there is nothing wrong with it. As the antenna on the plane can track the satellite, the fact that it is off its geostationery target position does not matter. Because the airlines might well be extending the useful life of a satellite, they should be able to get the bandwidth cheaply. This is though just an idea, untried and untested.

||**||II|~||~||~|During the trial of the service, Lufthansa passengers had 42 laptops available on the aircraft provided by the airline which they could use if they did not have their own with them. These were supplied by Fujitsu-Siemens and use a wireless LAN to access the aircraft network. At present, only these specific laptops have been certified as safe onboard the aircraft but Lufthansa is working to get a generic certification. In the interim, if you want to use your own laptop, you cannot use wireless but must plugin to a RJ-45 connector under your seat. All 250 seats in the aircraft are wired.

When you plug in and activate your browser you get a log on screen, which is essentially a terms-and-conditions page. Once these have been accepted, Lufthansa’s own Lufthansa FlyNet portal comes up. All this happens automatically; you should not have to change the settings on your laptop (unless it is configured for wireless and has no standard Ethernet port). The portal gives you access to a bunch of news stories and destination information and it could be a vehicle for much other e-commerce.

To get to the internet proper, you click “Internet - www” in the bar menu, and you are surfing. The system is set up for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator. It will also support a range of hardware, including PC notebook and tablet computers, Mac laptops and PDAs that are wifi compatible.

During the trial, should anybody have a problem, two trained staff are onboard to help out. When the system goes live proper in 2004, one or more stewardesses could be trained to give basic help if it is needed. I used the system to download company e-mail and send e-mails with no problems. The service was reasonable in terms of speed too.
The trial will run for three months until April.

“During this time Lufthansa will gather data and passenger feedback, make adjustments to the system and then start to roll it out to its long-haul fleet of 80 aircraft, which in itself will take some two years to do,” said Henningsen.

It will be expensive to fit: not necessarily in hardware cost, but in the estimated downtime for the plane of two weeks. Lufthansa and Lufthansa Technik people were asked constantly to provide upgrade costs, but consistently ducked the question. Nonetheless, everybody I spoke to from ConneXion by Boeing and Lufthansa were determined that the service would be rolled out to the airline’s fleet of 80 long-haul aircraft.

The projected price for the service was touted as from US $30 to 35 a seat, but just how the money was to be collected was not clear. If first and business class passengers expect the service to be provided in the price of their ticket, there will be no real revenue from this source. Even though ‘expect’ does not necessarily ‘get’, competition and the differentiation imperative will probably drive it in that direction. Will there be enough passengers in coach/economy willing to pay some 6% or so extra on their ticket price for the pleasure of surfing the net? There will be some I am sure, but how many?

The real value of the service may not be in the revenue that it generates, but in the expandability of the system. Airlines already spend a lot of money on entertainment systems onboard. If the internet link became the means through which movies, TV, games and onboard duty free shopping are delivered, it might well cover its costs.

There are also more serious uses. If the plane is online, its onboard computers can be too: engineering data can be shared with base at all times and, to example just one application, takeoff weights can be given to the pilot to enable him to set takeoff power more accurately. Thus fuel savings can be significant. There will be other savings as well.

But in the end, it will be the market that forces the adoption of the technology. Emirates was the first airline to put TV displays in the back of every seat. It did not take long before it was widely copied. Internet onboard may well be even be more widely adopted.
Bristish Airways has a trial running across the Atlantic using the same technology from ConneXion by Boeing; JAL and skandanavian carrier SAS have also announced plans to equip longer-range jetliners in their fleets starting in 2004.

Gulf Air says that it is planning to undertake a trial. The airline says that running costs will be “higher than the normal costs, but sat[-ellite] communication rates are dropping.”European routes will be first with the service, and then other routes will be considered.||**||

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