A revolution at the gate

Bandwidth growth, big data and business intelligence feature large among the many technology trends creating a critical mass that spells a new connected future for aircraft.

Already we’re a seeing a revolution onboard the aircraft, as airlines roll out applications and digital systems like Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs), cabin crew tablets, Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) and more in-flight entertainment (IFE) options for the connected traveler.

But now, the strong demand for bandwidth to and from the plane – and it’s bandwidth that underpins all of these systems – is set to increase dramatically. That means new levels of aircraft connectivity on the ground like we’ve not seen before.

The air transport industry began to recognize the need for better aircraft connectivity a few years ago. Hence the formalization of ‘Gatelink’ standards. Take-up so far has been limited with delays to new aircraft.

Coupled with that is the complexity of managing many connections across multiple airports, further slowing adoption.

B787 and A350 – driving forces

But as airlines introduce the B787 and plan for the A350, more and more carriers are looking for airport wireless and mobile connectivity using Wi-Fi networks or LTE, as they prepare to cope with ever growing volumes of digital communications with their aircraft at the airport.  

“A number of airlines are already running Gatelink systems, though we’re mainly seeing these at hub airports,” says Benoit Vedel, Head of Airport

Communications and Wireless Product line at SITA.

“As next generation aircraft now actually take to the skies we’re witnessing a huge increase in demand for Gatelink, Wi-Fi and LTE connectivity across secondary airports with mobile connectivity being increasingly used to target specific out-stations.”

End the complexity

Although airlines usually have well established IT systems at their main locations, they frequently run into problems supporting the complexity of connected aircraft at more remote locations.

Dealing with multiple airports means multiple airport contracts, multiple support models and multiple service level agreements. All of this complexity must be secure and deliver a seamless service to the operations teams.

“Managing that complexity is not the airlines’ core business which is why more and more of them are calling on the expertise of global IT suppliers like SITA to deliver connectivity across their airports,” says Vedel.

“Quite simply, what they need is access to fast and secure wireless broadband no matter what airport the aircraft may be, through one simple agreement.”

Next gen, next challenge

That requirement for ubiquitous wireless broadband reflects in the rising interest in AirportHub™, SITA's shared airport communications infrastructure.

In the increasingly real-time airport environment, AirportHub™ meets the needs of airlines and other airport tenants for 'always-on' communications – in the most cost-effective way.

After years of commitment and a multi-million dollar investment, AirportHub™ has become a building block in enabling a real-time intelligent environment at the world's airports – at no additional cost to airport authorities.

Sebastien Fabre, SITA’s VP Integrated Networks Business, notes: “We’ve seen a huge adoption of our Airport Hub service over the last few years.

Several thousand connections are now live over almost two hundred airports.

“We’ve expanded functionality to provide wireless solutions and we are already supporting many connected aircraft today. These numbers will only increase as we continue to rollout wireless connectivity to more and more airports.”

One trend is clear – more and more systems will continue to embrace the digital revolution, at the airport and on-board.

With next generation aircraft now a reality, the air transport industry’s next challenge is to make certain that the connectivity and support systems are in place to capitalize on this investment.

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