““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Business meetings these days often seem to have as much to do with technology as with human interaction. Out come the BlackBerries, iPhones, iPads and laptops. Before the gavel even drops, there is a flurry of flying fingers as attendees make Internet connections and check e-mails and text messages. Everyone's Web-connected almost constantly, and it's no different in a private jet at 40,000 feet than it is at home or in the office.
Well, maybe slightly different. In today's business aircraft, a Ku-band satellite connection provides relatively high-speed Internet voice and data transfer at 512 kbps per channel and 64 kbps ISDN (integrated service digital network). This allows Web surfing and e-mailing at speeds that in most cases appear to be as fast as those in the typical home or office. But the onboard connection is actually slower, which becomes obvious when you download large files.
Three factors limit Ku band. First, the size and weight of the required antenna restricts employment to large-cabin business aircraft. Second, the service may cost as much as $6,000 a month. Finally, the signal must travel roughly 44,000 miles from ground to satellite and back to the aircraft, or vice versa, resulting in delay, or latency.
The good news is that faster, more economical solutions are on the way:
> Eutelsat Communications recently launched its first Ka-band high-throughput satellite, marking the kickoff of its "Tooway" broadband product. The company expects this platform to deliver "cost-effective" high-bandwidth service across Europe and the Mediterranean basin–at speeds of up to 10 mbps downstream and 4 mbps upstream. Ka-band–which won't be available to business aviation before 2014–may not provide such eye-popping data-transfer speeds, but it should be a substantial improvement over current offerings.
> In the U.S., Aircell's Gogo Biz, using ground-based connectivity, is offering a peak data-transfer rate of 3.1 mbps. The advantages are minimal latency and the relatively low cost of service, which starts at about $395 per month. Coverage at this point is restricted to the continental U.S. and Alaska, where extensive arrays of ground antennas support the system. The equipment in a Gogo Biz package for business aviation typically weighs about 17 pounds, including two belly-mounted antennas.
> Zurich-based charter operator Fly Comlux's Airbus A319 Prestige, due to enter service in January, will permit passengers to stay in touch by voice or text through their own mobile phones, thanks to OnAir's Mobile OnAir system. GSM-compliant devices will connect to an onboard antenna and a mini-GSM network, which will send voice calls and data via an Inmarsat SwiftBroadband satellite link to the ground. There, it will connect to the OnAir ground infrastructure, which will route calls and data to public networks.
> JetCorp Technical Services in St. Louis has received FAA approval for the Aircell cabin telecommunications router on a Challenger 300. The installation provides Wi-Fi capability for Aircell's Gogo Biz in-flight Internet service. It permits passengers to use BlackBerrys, iPhones and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices to surf the Internet, retrieve and answer e-mails with attachments and access corporate VPNs (virtual private networks).
> Aviator 200 and Aviator 300–from Danish electronics giant Thrane & Thrane via master distributor Aircell–are rapidly finding their way into business aircraft. Aviator 200 delivers Internet access and e-mail to Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones, tablets and laptops at up to 158 kbps. That's not particularly fast, but the price is competitive: $75,000 for the equipment and about $7 to $10 per megabyte of data transferred. Voice service runs about $1.50 a minute. Aviator 300 has been selected for 12 factory airframe programs, including those at Bombardier, Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Gulfstream. Like Aviator 200, it offers global data transfer, but at up to 332 kbps. Aftermarket retrofit certifications for the Aviator series have been granted for the King Air 200, Citation CJ1 and Bombardier Challenger series. Certification programs are underway for the Cessna Citation XLS, the DC-8, Embraer Legacy 600 and 650, Falcon 2000EX, Falcon 2000LS, Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350 and Gulfstream IV.
> From EMS Aviation comes the Aspire family of satellite-based in-flight connectivity products, including its new AirMail portable e-mail system and a touch-screen, color handset. Aspire delivers voice and data connectivity to owners and operators of small- and medium-sized business aircraft, using standard wiring configurations and interfaces to support Inmarsat or Iridium components. Aspire 200 has been certified in a Hawker 4000, and the Morristown, N.J. company is pursuing approvals for other aircraft, including the Cessna Citation XLS and Citation XLS+, the Challenger 300 and the Falcon 2000 series.
Now that passengers on business jets routinely carry personal communication devices, they're demanding that these devices interface with their aircrafts' cabin-management and entertainment systems. In this arena, too, there have been major developments:
> Gulfstream's first completed G650 features the company's own cabin-management system (CMS), along with an application that turns passengers' smartphones into cabin-control devices.
> Cabin completion and refurbishment specialist Duncan Aviation of Lincoln, Neb., has introduced iCabin, an iPad application that allows wireless control of cabin systems. The first installation was in a Falcon 900, using Aircell CTR Wi-Fi sources and a unit to communicate instructions to the Honeywell MH cabin-management system.
> Flight Display's new CMS software allows passengers to control all cabin functions, from lighting to movies, through an Android smartphone.
> TruNorth Avionics of Ottawa has introduced HD Voice, a high-definition enhancement of its Simphone OpenCabin product. The Canadian company claims "a significant quality improvement over other phone systems on calls made via the Inmarsat SwiftBroadband and Swift64 satcom links."
> Esoteric, a wireless-technology specialist in Irvine, Calif., recently received an order from Innotech Aviation of Montreal for 35 ship sets of its SkyPad system. According to Innotech, SkyPad is the industry's first wireless in-flight entertainment and cabin-control system to integrate the iPad and Innotech's I-Ku system through a Ku-band connection.
> A free Rockwell Collins application, now available from the iTunes App Store, will transform an iPhone or iPod Touch into a remote for the company's Venue CMS. Rockwell Collins recently announced the aftermarket installation of the CMS in two Dornier 328DBJs (Dornier Business Jets).
Propelled by customer complaints that cabin-management systems require too much maintenance–and that you need a Ph.D. from MIT to understand their controls–manufacturers have been working to make them more reliable and user-friendly:
> Two Rockwell Collins CMS-equipped Dornier 328DBJs are the first European-manufactured airplanes to fly with Venue, according to the company. The CMS has also been picked by Nextant Aerospace for its 400XT twinjet upgrade and is standard equipment on the Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350i. Venue is available for the forward-fit as well as the used-aircraft market.
> Honeywell, which reintroduced its Ovation Select CMS last October, debuted an improved version this spring. The upgrade features single-touch activation and, according to the company, permits passengers to stay connected via BlackBerry, iPad, iPod, iPhone or laptop, or to view a Blu-ray movie. Ovation Select's JetMap HD allows viewers to see the flight path from 18 perspectives and to "visit" other destinations "at Mach five" with the press of a button. Ovation Select has been installed in Honeywell's own corporate Falcon 900EX. First customer deliveries will go to three Boeing Business Jets in September and a Gulfstream G550 in October.
> German completion and refurbishment specialist Lufthansa Technik has announced a 50/50 partnership with Panasonic Avionics. The resulting independent company, IDair (Innovation Design for the Air), takes the crème de la crème from Lufthansa's business jet products and Panasonic's X series commercial flight entertainment system. The backbone of IDair's offering is a combination of Panasonic eX2 with components from Lufthansa Technik's networked integrated cabin equipment (Nice) system.
High-definition video is another item appearing on customers' "gotta have" list. What some business jet owners don't realize is that adding a Blu-ray player and high-definition monitor doesn't necessarily guarantee a high-definition image. To really deliver HD, the system must be high-definition front-to-back and at all points in between. That means not only the disc and the player and the monitor, but also the signal transmission system and wiring. But fear not–completion and refurbishment centers and aircraft manufacturers are aware of this and tweaking their product lines:
> Goodrich, which last year completed its purchase of a majority of DeCrane Aerospace's assets, including Audio International, has introduced its Platinum HD cabin-management system. It features two Blu-ray players and offers 1080p resolution on monitors from 12 to 42 inches. According to the newly formed Goodrich Cabin Electronic Systems, the first aircraft to be equipped with Platinum HD, a Boeing Business Jet, is scheduled for delivery in the third quarter of 2011.
> In Europe, Airbus Corporate Jet Centre is offering high-definition cabin entertainment through HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) for the Airbus Corporate Jet line. The system provides HD video on up to four monitors in each private area simultaneously, either through a local source such as a Blu-ray player or from an external device (video game console or laptop) with an HDMI plug.
> The latest from Rosen Aviation of Eugene, Ore. is a line of monitors that are just 1.1-inches deep, thanks to separation of the screen from the power supply and video electronics. The ultra-slim screen produces almost no heat and allows for three bulkhead-mounting configurations, as well as a credenza-mount design.
In 1919, when the Navy's NC-4 flying boat made the first manned aircraft transatlantic crossing, wireless cabin communication was a matter of yelling louder than the roar of four engines just a few feet from an open cockpit. Eight years later, when Charles Lindbergh was making his first solo transatlantic flight, his air/ground communication consisted of a low pass over a fishing boat, accompanied by the shout, "Which way is Ireland!" As for entertainment, it was enough just to survive. In-flight communication and entertainment have come a long way since then. A very long way, indeed.