APEX: Inmarsat outlines progress on both GX and EAN

Frederik van Essen, Inmarsat Aviation’s Senior Vice President, Strategy and Business Development.
Frederik van Essen, Inmarsat Aviation’s Senior Vice President, Strategy and Business Development.

At the recent APEX Expo in Long Beach, California, Frederik van Essen, Senior Vice President Strategy and Business Development, Inmarsat Aviation, spent some time with “Get Connected’s” Steve Nichols and other journalists in a round table question and answer session. This is what he had to say:

Question: Why did you commission the “Sky High Economics: Quantifying the commercial opportunities of passenger connectivity for the global airline industry” study?

Answer: Many airlines are currently asking a lot of questions about inflight connectivity and some may be struggling to make a business case for it. This wholly-independent study by London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) can help them make the right decisions.

Question: I understand this is the first of three reports. What’s next?

Answer: Part two will look at the benefits of inflight connectivity to airline operations and will follow in about three months. The third and final part of the study will look at how airlines can use connectivity to increase customer loyalty. That will be released approximately three months after the second report.

Question: How is the rollout of Inmarsat’s GX inflight connectivity progressing?

Answer: There are now more than 1,300 aircraft in the GX backlog. Lufthansa Technik is really stepping up its production lines for the Lufthansa aircraft and should be finished in 2018, as should Austrian Airlines. Lufthansa Systems is currently working on the passenger interface for GX on Eurowings. Meanwhile, Air Astana has its first aircraft online and Qatar Airways is working on its installations. In total, there are currently about 100 commercial aircraft flying with GX.

Question: Who are currently customers for GX?

Answer: In alphabetical order, Air Astana, AirAsia, Air Caraïbes and its sister company French Blue, Air New Zealand, Avianca, Lufthansa Group (including sister airlines Eurowings and Austrian Airlines), Norwegian Air Shuttle, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, and an unnamed airline announced at APEX (possibly SpiceJet – Steve Nichols).

Question: Is Honeywell able to keep up with the demand for the GX terminals, antennas and other JetWave equipment?

Answer: Honeywell says there is no bottleneck in terms of the supply of GX equipment. There is no bottleneck in terms of the MRO side of the installs either.

Question: Have you learned anything from the early installs of GX?

Answer: We’ve learned a tremendous amount! This includes details around the installation procedure, the software, its operation, in fact, everything!

Question: Will your satellite network be able to handle the rapid growth of GX?

Answer: We have three Inmarsat I-5 satellites in position and working, plus a fourth which is currently in orbit and working well, but not yet in service. We also have a fifth GX satellite being built by Thales Alenia Space for launch in 2019. There are also contracts in place with Airbus for two further dual Ka-/L-band satellites, which are planned for launch in 2020 with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. We can therefore add capacity and optimise our traffic as required.

Question: Will the fifth GX satellite have the same capacity as the first four?

Answer: It will be fully compatible with the current I-5 satellites, but is of a different design and will offer the same or greater capacity.

Question: What about steerable beams?

Answer: The current I-5 satellites have six steerable beams. The two I-6 dual-band satellites will have fully-steerable Ka beams and have been ordered to replace our older satellites that are coming to the end of their lives.

Question: Is there any news on the Kymeta metamaterial flat-panel antenna for GX?

Answer: This is fascinating technology, but it has been a difficult and long process. Kymeta is now productionising a similar antenna for ground-based use. The company is looking at antennas for automobile and maritime use first, before concentrating on similar technology for aviation.

Question: What about the European Aviation Network (EAN)? When is it going live?

Answer: The first test flights have started – now that the satellite is up and running, we can begin testing the whole integrated system of the satellite and complementary ground system. Early tests along the Southwest coast of the UK saw the 75+ Mbps throughputs confirmed (and even up to 100 Mbps at times). The first pilot flights on commercial aircraft are planned to take place later this year.

Question: ViaSat and Eutelsat have lodged a complaint with the European Court of Justice seeking an injunction on the proposed EAN service. How do you feel about that?

Answer: We see no merit in their arguments. We are confident that it will go nowhere.

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