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Lufthansa has always been a pioneer when it comes to inflight connectivity. Now, it is extending the concept to the group's narrowbody fleet. Mario Pierobon reports

Airline passengers want to use their own mobile devices to access the Internet via WLAN; in addition to simple email services, more demanding applications and even streaming will eventually be expected by passengers in the future. At an even later point in time passengers will probably expect to be able to transfer data using their mobile phones based on their own mobile phone contract. In order to satisfy the demands of passengers for superior connectivity up in the air, airlines all over the world are increasingly looking at retrofitting their aircraft with connectivity enabling solutions and Ka-band technology appears to be the most promising one.


Lufthansa Technik has started installing the latest Ka-band satellite technology as standard equipment for the Lufthansa Group’s entire Airbus A320 aircraft family. Approximately 300 aircraft will be fitted with the necessary antennas and routers, in parallel, in up to 10 production lines by early 2018 at various Lufthansa Technik locations. The engineers at Lufthansa Technik have optimised the system installation procedure and minimised the required intervention in the aircraft structure. According to Lufthansa Technik, this allows the fastest possible integration even in large fleets – generally in four days per layover. Subsequent modifications and even complete dismantling of the installation will be feasible without costly replacement of large structural elements, allowing Lufthansa to cater for any future.


Lufthansa Technik currently holds Supplemental Type Certificates (STC) for the Airbus A320 Family and the Airbus A340 for installing the system. It just recently received the STC for the Boeing 737-700. Additionally, the STC will be extended to the whole Boeing 737 family and the Airbus A330 in the short term in order to provide full support for customers, in particular in the Asian market, for equipping their fleets with broadband communication technology. “The procedure we have developed combined with Lufthansa Technik’s wealth of experience in the project management of extensive modification programmes ensures that we can equip even large fleets with this technology in the shortest possible time,” says Lukas Bucher, head of aircraft modification (international) at Lufthansa Technik. “We also want to make sure from the very outset that any technological advances that we may not yet be aware of or any changes in customer requirements can be retrofitted or converted with minimum overhead,” says Heike Handke, Product Manager Strategy and Business Development in the Aircraft Modification business unit of Lufthansa Technik.


The Ka-band satellite technology will allow seamless, reliable coverage on short and medium haul flights with Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX) network. In satellite communications the Ka-band allows higher bandwidth communication. Typical fixed satellite services used for internet to home or TV broadcasting use the lower Ku-band, which requires larger antennas. “The Inmarsat GX constellation currently consists of three Ka-band satellites (with a fourth scheduled for launch in 2017 and two more scheduled for launch in 2020), which operate with a combination of fixed narrow spot beams that enable Inmarsat to deliver higher speeds through more compact terminals, plus steerable beams so additional capacity can be directed in real-time to where it is needed,” says Frederik van Essen, Inmarsat Aviation Senior Vice President of Strategy and Business Development. “The Ka-band is a relatively new and uncontested part of the radio spectrum that can deliver high-speed connectivity through relatively small steerable antennas, economically, which opens up a whole new market for airlines to deliver unique passenger experiences. GX for Aviation powered by the GX network is set up like a mobile cellular network, not on the ground, but in the sky. It is unique in that it offers uninterrupted high-speed connectivity (up to 50 Mbps) worldwide and gives passengers a seamless experience and airlines the confidence to launch new services driving commercial value.” 


One of the advantages of Ka-band satellite technology is that it enables more frequencies. “There is a variety of different satellite solutions for connectivity out there. Primarily it has been based on the so-called Ku-Band (e.g. Panasonic, GEE) or L-Band frequencies. The Ka-band, which is used by the latest satellites, has more frequencies available compared to the competing Ku-band. Very simply put, more frequency translated to more bandwidths,” says Jan-Peter Gäense, Director of Product & Certification at Lufthansa Systems.


Satellite connections using the Ka-band will deliver more bandwidth than past frequencies used for communication. “Additionally the newer satellites have been purpose built to satisfy high-data requirements. The passenger will eventually experience a similar level of speed, like at home,” says Bucher.


The current and expected increase in aircraft retrofitting to enable internet connectivity is supported by evidence that there is a demand for passenger internet connectivity in flight. “As demonstrated by our customer contracts with the likes of Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Air Astana and Singapore Airlines, airlines see the value of this service. GX for Aviation takes airlines beyond basic first-generation broadband services to streamed entertainment and advanced inflight shopping, and beyond, with many possibilities for monetising these services,” says van Essen. “Our survey of 9,000 passengers this year showed that 54% of passengers would choose wifi over an inflight meal when they fly. Moreover, 83% would choose an airline based on broadband availability. The survey results underline the fact that airlines need to offer a reliable, high-quality broadband service to boost passenger levels and avoid losing out to their competitors.”


Inmarsat’s survey is one of the most comprehensive surveys of airline customers worldwide; it was carried out together with market research company GfK and it shows that the vast majority of airline customers want to stay online when they fly. Over 9,000 people from 27 countries in Europe, Asia, Australasia, and Central and South America were surveyed between August 2015 and March 2016. Those questioned had taken a short, medium or long haul flight in the past year and carried at least one personal device on board. Additional key findings of the survey are that 92% of passengers want inflight connectivity, 69% are willing to pay for this service on long haul flights, 64% are willing to pay on short flights, 75% say a reliable connection is more important than speed and 78% expect onboard connectivity to replace inflight entertainment in 5-10 years, reports Inmarsat. >>

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