Internet connectivity is like water for fish. We cannot see it; but without it, we die. Or at least that is how it feels. If you think that overstated, turn your wi-fi off for the weekend. We all know how much more productive we are with access to the internet – even if the task at hand is relaxing or being entertained. It is no wonder that the digital agenda is such an important part of Europe’s future.
Aviation is something of an anomaly. Aircraft are high-tech pieces of kit, seemingly defying gravity, but for passengers, historically, they were an oasis of non-connectedness. That sometimes sounds like a nice thing, but only if it is a choice. Remember, even our down time can be more productively spent with connectivity. But over the last few years, thanks to the European Aviation Network, or EAN, a joint venture between Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom, and a number of other leading European technology innovators, that has started to change. Now there are airlines across Europe offering passengers internet access; not just on long-haul flights but on short-haul European flights too.
Traditionally, the bandwidth necessary for an internet connection is delivered to the aircraft from a satellite and, generally, only aircraft that fly trans-oceanic flights are equipped to speak to satellites. Short-haul flights have not needed satellites to track them. No, remarkably, we still largely track aircraft with ground-based radar. Only when we run out of radar range – by running out of the ground on which we base the radar – do we turn to satellites.
The EU Strategy for Smart and Sustainable Mobility notes that the transport sector needs ‘a fairer, greener and more digital future’. Aviation is an analogue industry – teleporting still being a dream – but the benefits of digitalisation are obvious. They range from smart 3-D and AI design tools designing the airframe, to beaming engine performance data to the ground to save time and costs in ensuring that the engines are performing optimally all the time, to procedures within each airline, airport and air traffic control agency to manage each flight and the passengers on the flight. All of these have direct benefit for us all and help reduce the industry’s emissions.
However, until now, for European passengers, a more digital future has been easier to say than to download. The expense and weight of installing digital connectivity for passengers was considered prohibitive. Which is what makes the EAN so interesting. It combines high-capacity satellite coverage with an integrated 4G LTE ground network to provide high-speed coverage across 30 European nations.
It seems so obvious, but on the aviation side, for many years there has been a strict distinction between messages to and from the cockpit, which are classified as ‘safety of life’ and thus deserving of significant protection and special treatment; and commercial uses, such as offering passengers an enhanced service. This risked duplication of systems. Europe’s radio-spectrum use, and regulation, needed to be harmonised and modernised. That was done by DG CONNECT. That means that as technology converges and develops further, options for passengers will increase.
A passenger with connectivity has choices. The first, of course, is to read to a book, analogue style, or to sleep. No change there. What is changing is the passenger expectation of what is possible. Passengers want to follow the news, or sport, or do some work, or even watch a movie. But low speed, or patchy, coverage merely frustrates. It is only when the connectivity is provided by a consistent, high-speed, integrated system that passenger demand can be met in a way that opens up these possibilities. That is what the EAN connectivity provides.
If the coronavirus pandemic taught us anything, it is that by staying connected we can survive in bubbles, and get work done too. For the foreseeable future, air travel too will require us to engage in socially distant, bubble-like behaviour. From the airlines’ perspective, being connected via the EAN system allows them to arrange seating in as socially distant a way as possible; to send messages regarding changing status of the flight and its passengers; to assist with tracking and tracing. In your bubble, connectivity matters more than ever. It will allow us to download destination information and tracing apps and to stay connected – a vital part of any tracing scheme – whilst getting on with getting back to a more productive and socially connected life.
For the airlines there are some clear operational advantages too. Passengers know better than them what in-flight experience they want, so why try to second-guess them? One of the collateral costs of Covid-19 has been that things like in-flight magazines, touched by many, are now history. Your smart phone is inside your bubble and can be monitored and touched only by you, a much safer outcome. The weight savings of each passenger bringing their own entertainment system will also save fuel and thus emissions. More importantly, fully EAN-connected aircraft can receive weather and other information that allows them to change their routing en-route, saving fuel and time. That has an immediate emission dividend.
Change is difficult in aviation. Airframes are scrupulously tested and reviewed before going into production. Changes to an approved design cannot happen on a whim. The entire system is regulated with that in mind. We work very hard to make each flight as safe as possible. So a change like the EAN, which takes proven technologies but uses them in ways that are of clear benefit to the flying public, should be recognised for the advance that it is, as well as for the benefits it delivers.
Full disclosure: Andrew Charlton does work for EAN