Why create SITAONAIR?
First, the need to provide a comprehensive approach – so the air transport community as a whole can benefit from new generation aircraft through e-enablement. Second, synergy – by bringing together the strengths, market leadership and track record of two unique organizations: SITA and OnAir.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen aircraft communications change as never before. In the area of cockpit communications, the loss of MH370 last year and AF447 in 2009 has made more change imperative.
In the meantime, in the cabin there’s been an explosion in passengers’ expectations for constant connectivity in-flight. The use of social media has played a large part: passengers were busily texting and tweeting before take-off and wanted to continue during flight.
Airlines have had to respond. And of course, SITAONAIR has made in-flight passenger connectivity a reality with a growing range of services.
But it’s become what we call a nose-to-tail issue. This takes in the aircraft’s entire connectivity needs – be it for passengers, the cabin, cockpit, or aircraft health monitoring. It goes even further, to include air traffic navigation and control.
And since we work with air traffic control, that too can be linked into airline operational centers. This opens new areas of opportunity that we’re exploring, which extend beyond alerts and tracking.
Nose-to-tail implies downloading and uploading data to and from the aircraft at the departing airport and maintaining a live link all the way through to its destination. At present all of the various elements – such as passengers, cabin, cockpit, aircraft, flight operations and air traffic control – are treated as silos.
What we’re offering is the opportunity to finally get rid of the silos, embrace a consistent approach for the whole community and create something truly unique – making the aircraft a real node in the overall air transport eco-system. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of opportunities – but opportunities also need to be managed.
SITAONAIR recognizes that the optimum way to realize the nose-to-tail agenda is to adopt a community approach, delivering against today’s requirements but also taking a lead in shaping how aircraft communications will evolve over the next 10 years.
This is given extra urgency with the arrival of new generation ‘e-enabled’ aircraft and discussions about data requirements and communications.
We’ll see more than 1,000 new generation aircraft coming into service every year. These aircraft – such as the 757s and A380s – can be more difficult to operate optimally unless you have constant access to the aircraft. For that you need the right communications infrastructure – but it’s not yet in place.
So, for example, many opportunities to operate an A380 more efficiently than previous aircraft are not being realized. New generation aircraft are superb, but you need the infrastructure and processes in place to get the most from their technology.
Then there are thousands of legacy aircraft looking to connect, a process which will take many years. They also need the right infrastructure and this presents another challenge for airlines.
In the operational center, for instance, it doesn’t make sense for an airline to manage half of its fleet in one way, and the other half in a different way. A nose-to-tail community approach will address these issues.
What does OnAir bring to the tie-up?
OnAir was started by SITA and Airbus in 2005. It became a wholly owned subsidiary of SITA in 2013. It created the market for in-flight passenger connectivity internationally, has gained a strong customer base and is well positioned for the ballooning demand for passenger and cabin crew communications.
Last year, 13 million passengers used OnAir's in-flight mobile phone service – and 37% of passengers flying in aircraft equipped with OnAir capabilities connected to the in-flight network.
We’ve built the infrastructure from the ground up, country by country. So just as SITA has built its global network for cockpit communications over decades, so OnAir has built a global web of in-flight connectivity over the past 10 years.
We have an unrivalled regulatory footprint, with authorizations from over 100 countries. And the largest network of roaming agreements with more than 375 mobile network operators. It means we can operate services over-country or in-country where the aircraft is registered.
What does SITA bring to the tie up?
SITA remains the air transport community’s aircraft communications provider of choice, and leads the world in aircraft communications.
With its AIRCOM® services, SITA delivers aviation industry standard mission-critical air-to-ground communications services for aircraft, airline operations, air traffic service providers and governments.
We have a head start with services such as SITA AIRCOM® Server, which leads the market in air-to-ground communication links, allowing airlines to integrate their operational processes and IT systems with the aircraft.
This is already used by some 90 airlines and another 100 can operate a cloud solution. The point is that we’re not just talking about answers to the issues. We already have the capabilities – and we’re delivering them.
The fit with OnAir is crucial. Combining AIRCOM with OnAir creates an unrivalled connectivity environment. AIRCOM has always been able to roam intelligently, so it picks up terminals when needed.
It can now also use the picocell that characterizes OnAir’s technology and will soon be using the new super-fast broadband GX Aviation network linked to Inmarsat, providing 50Mbps speeds to the aircraft.
With growing convergence between these strands of communications in terms of both infrastructure and type of application, we have created a strong and unique business in air transport. No one else has the nose-to-tail capability. Working together, we can focus the resource needed to drive further innovation quickly and effectively.
So timing and infrastructure are key?
Completely, and it’s about taking aircraft communications to the next generation, starting now. We are in a position to do that, using a community-based nose-to-tail service with a strong, consistent and experienced base that’s vendor-neutral – regardless of aircraft type, fleet size or route structure.
One of our greatest advantages is that we have assets in place everywhere. A lot of people talk about connected aircraft and many say they can do it, but it’s in a restricted and proprietary way that doesn’t address the complexity of the community’s requirement for nose-to-tail aircraft connectivity. They may have products on the aircraft but can they connect to airline operational centers and IT systems?
SITAONAIR is deploying technology consistently to address the entire aircraft communications requirement. Again, with the infrastructure in place, we can implement quickly and don’t have to negotiate with airports individually to get access to its IT systems. SITA already has that capability and it’s a huge advantage.
So what’s the data requirement?
The use of cockpit data for optimizing aircraft performance – together with the need for robust flight tracking – are driving demand for very different levels of communications, especially streamed data.
For example, we’re introducing a product called AIRCOM® FlightTracker that will stream black box data in real-time from both long-range and regional aircraft, providing constant location data.
We can bring these to the entire worldwide air transport community more quickly than anyone because of our global infrastructure.
There’s a growing demand for massive data offload. This is operational data that can be sent through broadband solutions in the passenger cabin. It means that communications traffic from the cockpit can be reduced to flight-critical data, which will continue to use existing routes for maybe a decade or more.
This is where SITAONAIR offers huge value. Controlled from the ground, a device on the aircraft accesses operational data and transfers it to the airline’s operational centers at head office or at airports as needed.
It can send data direct and securely to OEMs and other relevant third parties. This capability does not need to be invented: it’s already there. It’s just a question of connecting the aircraft for it to become a discrete node on the wider network.
Of course, there are implications for bandwidth management. At the airport, passengers are increasingly given bandwidth free of charge. It may be limited but if you want to buy more, you can.
It will be similar with aircraft. Except the difference is that in the aircraft, whatever solution is available today or in the foreseeable future, bandwidth is a finite resource. You will never be able to do in the air what you do on the ground. It'll be like going to a cybercafé. Usage will need to be managed.
That’s one of the reasons why we’ve introduced our wireless in-flight entertainment package – OnAir Play. It has rich multimedia content that delivers a highly personal experience.
It can be branded to the airline and can include live-streamed content, such as breaking news or sports updates. It expands the range of options for passengers to connect. But it remains a managed service that allows the airline to control bandwidth.
In the meantime, we’re doing a lot of work in traffic management – to understand where it’s best to stream data, where best to transfer data, how to optimize the packages of data that are going to and from the aircraft.
There are some very exciting technologies being developed. But they're not here yet, and won't be for some time. You’ll see aircraft with a combination of communication links. It will almost be like roaming on your mobile phone – switching between 2G, 3G and 4G depending on where you are and the strength of signal.
What new ways of working will your approach introduce?
For passengers, I think your readers will be acquainted with the OnAir range of in-flight connectivity solutions, including GSM mobile phone, Wi-Fi, and wireless in-flight entertainment (W-IFE). It’s notable that a number of airlines are already moving towards providing passengers with free Wi-Fi.
For cabin staff, they’re able to offer enhanced customer service. Our CrewTablet product, for example, provides a wide range of information about passengers on a seat map that cabin crew can view on a tablet. It might include flight history, food preferences for instance. CrewTablet can access information from the airline’s passenger reservations system and loyalty system.
It digitizes all manuals and paper-based reporting materials, so cabin crew can do all of their pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight reports on the device, saving time, weight and cost.
In the cockpit, our work on Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) demonstrates what we’re doing – and, just as importantly, what we’re not doing.
First of all, we’re not selling a proprietary package. You choose the hardware packages that are right for your fleet and install them. You might choose our own offerings but you don’t have to. Where we add the greatest value is at the application level.
With other systems, the pilot has to train separately on different EFB systems – whether for Airbus, Boeing or another aircraft. That’s expensive and time-wasting. We offer complete integration of applications into the hardware, so it doesn't matter whether it's aircraft ‘A’ or ‘B’. Pilots see a common interface.
The same approach is taken with passenger and cabin crew applications. No matter what the hardware, the interface is identical. This is a major advantage compared to buying a proprietary solution and application, and bringing in third-party applications.
We're saying there’s no need to do that. People have all sorts of equipment. Our community-based approach starts from the basis of helping the airline utilize the assets it's already acquired.
So it’s nose-to-tail connectivity with apps?
Exactly, and that’s a big change. We want open platforms, so regardless of which aircraft type passengers are flying, they’ll see the same interface. We’re doing the same for cockpit and crew applications.
As I said, airlines have already invested in hardware and systems and they’re not integrated. We integrate the applications. Then in connecting to the ground, it doesn’t matter what channel it is, nor whether the connection is broadband or narrowband – we can connect and operate.
This leads to different levels of added-value depending on the aircraft, and depending on the airline's decision. More of the big airlines want a service provider. They don't want everything so interlinked that they're then committed to buying certain hardware and software, or service options that already exist. They want the flexibility to be able to use existing hardware to introduce new systems, new services as suits their needs.
What are the main challenges?
Across all areas there's the need for consistency and commonality – and, of course, the challenges of connecting into the ground infrastructure, making best use of shared infrastructure, standardizing processes.
However, our starting point is our focus on what the community needs as a whole, rather than any individual airline. The result is always better for all.
Speed is critical and we’re evolving quickly. We’re able to demonstrate to airlines the kind of flexibility you see in the consumer market. Why? Because the infrastructure we’ve got will allow that.
It’s a challenge for airlines to adapt because they’re used to waiting for and working around periodical service. The same with OEMs and IFE providers. Everything will become an open platform.
There’s now a need to understand the global consumer market, because that's what's going to happen to communications in the aircraft. Where it used to take years to bring through new products and services, we’re trying to bring them to maturity in months.
We can do it. AIRCOM Server, for example, is a ground-based solution. That means we can update it almost literally after every flight if that's what you want to do – or certainly implement a change within a day or two. So airlines will benefit from greater agility and speed.
Looking ahead what are the main developments?
Over the next year you will see more innovation, and more products being trialed, launched and implemented.
We’re talking to a growing number of OEMs who think the way we do. They’re the ones we’ll be working with to develop our capabilities, to break down the communications silos that militate against true nose-to-tail connectivity.
You'll see us working more and more with industry players, including competitors, to build a powerful community-based response to one of the most exciting opportunities that our industry has faced for decades. There’s everything to play for.