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Business Aviation Insider

Quick Turns: Explaining Inflight Wi-Fi’s Limitations

July 18, 2016

Wi-Fi hotspots are seemingly everywhere, which reflects customer expectations to always be connected. Those expectations don’t change when people board an airplane.

Equipping a stationary location is one thing. But outfitting a moving space – especially one that soars miles above the earth, over land and open ocean – is a bigger challenge. As an aircraft operator, understanding the capabilities and limitations of your aircraft’s connectivity systems is the best way to set expectations for your customers.

Quick Turns: Explaining Inflight Wi-Fi's Limitations

But how do you do that?

One maintenance technician whose company flies overseas says his company’s flight attendants brief passengers on the use of the onboard Wi-Fi system, using protocols that the maintenance department has developed for onboard crew members. The instructions detail how to use the system and include suggested techniques for troubleshooting.

If problems with connectivity systems occur in flight “there are usually one or more work-arounds that crew or passengers can do,” said Jim Janaitis, aircraft maintenance manager for IBM Flight Operations. “If it’s a wireless connection issue, the passengers might be able to plug into a hard-wired jack. If that doesn’t work, there may be another on-board system to use via a different wireless access point or a different jack. Unless there is a technician on board, the first best option is usually going to one of the backups. These systems can be very complex, and the ability for a flight attendant or passenger to troubleshoot is pretty limited.”

Maintenance technicians report that the most common passenger connectivity complaints are about bandwidth and speed, especially because people have grown accustomed to downloading and viewing video when online.

Frequently, explanations about the limitations of inflight connectivity begin with the statement that airborne systems cannot offer the same speed and capacity as ground networks.

In addition, flight crews often need to explain the limitations of ground-based One low-orbit satellite network provides near-global coverage, but bandwidth is limited to basic text messages and email, which underscores the biggest issue ham-pering global internet coverage. Networks set up to connect enroute aircraft to the ground were focused on transmitting simple voice or text messages to and from the cockpit. Adapting to early inflight internet surfers’ needs was doable. But internet usage is changing, and video is the driver.

While opportunities to improve ground-based networks exist, they won’t help serve overwater flights. That’s why some inflight internet service providers are turning to higher-throughput satellites to power their future networks, ones that will provide enough bandwidth to support video streaming and eventually will lead to seamless global internet coverage.

For now, the first step in setting expectations for passengers is knowing what the installed connectivity services – both the provider(s) and bandwidth capability – are. From there, see if your service providers have coverage maps that you can share with passengers. Many of them provide maps on their websites. Other providers can create customized maps that include your planned route.

Once passengers know the situation, explain their options. For instance, some operators offer their passengers longer routings that avoid polar-route dead spots and keep the aircraft connected for a higher percentage of the flight.

Learn more about connectivity issues at www.nbaa.org/connectivity.

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This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Business Aviation Insider.