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Online Extra

Productivity Soars Higher With Inflight Internet

In a few short years, broadband Internet service has become widely available on business airplanes, making the productivity gains of using business aviation even more powerful. Passengers on business aircraft can use e-mail and the Web, send documents back and forth with their office and even hold videoconferences with contacts on the ground.

“Airplanes have been unconnected for so long, that to see where aviation has come – from no Internet a few years ago – to what we have now, with speeds like your home, makes people very excited,” said Tom Myers, director of marketing at Aircell, a leading inflight connectivity provider for business aircraft.

Now that it’s available, cabin connectivity is quickly becoming a top consideration for passengers on business aircraft. “Business travelers are demanding the ability to be connected at all times,” said Kate Murchison, director of marketing at EMS Aviation, which designs and manufactures inflight voice communication and data networking systems. “For businesspeople, it’s an ability to keep in touch with people on the ground, be responsive to their managers or get the contract done on the way.”

Passengers Totally Plugged In

That’s exactly what pilots and aviation directors who’ve added the service to their airplanes say. Dennis O’Brien is the chief pilot at Flatirons Aviation Management, which manages business aircraft for a Part 91 corporate flight department and for charter. When O’Brien’s passengers are on the airplane, they’re either busy working, responding to e-mails or Web conferencing.

 “I had one passenger flying to Washington, DC for a conference, and we were delayed for over an hour because of weather,” said O’Brien. “With the Internet in the cabin, he was able to stay in constant contact with his office and reschedule the meeting.”

While inflight Web conferences are becoming increasingly common, the simplest change is often the most powerful – in this case, full access to e-mail. “Arriving with your inbox empty is priceless,” said Keith Kreeger, director of a Dallas-based flight department.

“Once we get above 10,000 feet with flaps up, everybody is off to work,” said Kreeger. “You can walk out [of the airplane and into] a meeting and react right away. On more than one occasion, the availability of Internet in flight has allowed my passengers to react in a way that impacted an impending deal.”

The advantages of Internet access aren’t limited to the cabin. O’Brien and Kreeger report that if their passengers need to change destinations en route, the copilot simply needs to send a single e-mail, alerting the FBO, hotel and car rental office, and all the schedule changes are made. For pilots who are using Apple iPads as electronic flight bags, broadband Internet enables them to update their charts in flight, as well as access weather data, aircraft manuals and technical assistance.

Four Different Networks

While the desire for inflight Internet service seems to be universal, the options for connecting are specialized for different types of operations.

On the ground, Myers notes, all networks are the same, offering nearly the same speed for the same prices. In aviation, that’s not the case. Currently, there are roughly four different networks for business aviation, each offering different levels of connectivity and geographic coverage at different levels of cost:

  • Iridium’s low-orbit satellite network enables voice connections and narrowband data, about enough for text messages or BlackBerry e-mail. It offers 2.4 kilobits per second (kbps) of bandwidth and is available worldwide.
  • Inmarsat’s satellite network, including the Swift 64 and SwiftBroadband services, is available anywhere but in the polar regions. SwiftBroadband offers up to 432 kbps for inflight office usage, including full Internet and voice capability.
  • Aircell’s Gogo Biz ground-based network is available above 10,000 feet in the Continental U.S. and most of Alaska and offers up to 3.1 Mbps, speeds near what most ground-based users are accustomed to.
  • ViaSat’s Yonder Ku-band satellite network is available on and above most landmasses and transocean routes. It offers about 2 Mbps and includes unlimited use for a fixed monthly fee.

“It all comes down to how the operator uses the aircraft,” said Myers. “We teach people to think about where and how often they fly, and choose the network first, then the equipment.”

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