The rumors appear to be true. A look at the first Aeromexico 737 MAX rolling off the line in Renton suggests that the carrier is choosing to diversify its inflight connectivity play. The new frame has a “standard” Boeing radome atop the fuselage diverging from its Gogo 2Ku installs on the 737-800 fleet.
— Woodys Aeroimages (@AeroimagesChris) January 28, 2018
What remains unclear is why the decision was made and also what is under that radome.
Certification challenges for the 737 MAX are certainly one reason the planes might not be flying with 2Ku. While Gogo continues to secure the necessary certifications across various fleet types the 737 MAX does not appear to be on the list of types where the kit is authorized. The company notes that 80% of the aircraft types it plans to install 2Ku on are covered. From a September 2017 statement:
With the addition of the 777, Gogo now has regulatory approval to install 2Ku on most major aircraft types including Boeing 737, 747, 757, 777 aircraft and Airbus A319, A320, A321, A330, A340 and A350 aircraft. The company expects to add the Boeing 767 aircraft later this year.
What’s under the dome?
With Gogo seemingly out of the picture on this frame the question becomes which product – if any – is installed? Of the other major vendors it should be easy to exclude Thales, Viasat and Inmarsat from consideration. Thales is pursuing certification of its own radome on the 737 MAX with Air Canada so using the Boeing radome for an Aeromexico install is unlikely.
Viasat‘s Ka-band solution could be considered as well, though the coverage footprint of the new ViaSat-2 satellite does not extend sufficiently south to handle all of the routes currently flown on 737-800s. The carrier has not confirmed any new MAX routes but presumably full coverage from the new system into South America is important. Or maybe not. After all, El Al took the Viasat/Eutelsat solution and Tel Aviv isn’t in the coverage area.
Inmarsat’s Global Xpress Ka-band play falls into the maybe category for Aeromexico. Norwegian is taking 737 MAX aircraft with the Boeing/General Dynamics tri-band radome installed though without any connectivity kit under the bump. The never-really-formally-announced deal for Norwegian to install Inmarsat’s GX solution on its 787 and 737 MAX fleet has new deliveries from Boeing flying the radome but no other systems installed. Installs of the 737 MAX kit for Norwegian are expected to be performed by Lufthansa Technik beginning in mid-2018.
Global Eagle scored line-fit offerability for Ku-band inflight connectivity in August 2017. It was the first vendor to realize such certification and promised “several MAX customers that will be flying our systems, though they are not yet announced.” Adding Aeromexico to that customer list would be a nice win for the company. GEE’s recent efforts include Ka-band services as well. That product is not a line-fit option, though the company is showing it to potential airline customers as offerable today.
Finally, there is Panasonic Avionics‘ eXConnect Ku-band solution. PAC already holds the contract to deliver the inflight entertainment system on the 60 Aeromexico 737 MAX aircraft and the company speaks often of the value in acquiring the two services from a common vendor. Jon Norris, PAC’s senior director corporate sales & marketing sums the scenario thusly:
We believe that the sum is greater than the parts. If you take connectivity & IFE from the same vendor, from us, the ecosystem is much more powerful than if you splinter into multiple providers and try to cobble it together.
Panasonic’s push for line-fit offerability on the 737 MAX is no secret, though it has not yet announced Boeing’s approval for such. It is also worth noting that Aeromexico’s 787s carry the Panasonic product.
It is also possible that Aeromexico is taking the planes with the radome installed but performing the connectivity kit install post-delivery. Southwest Airlines is doing that on some of its MAX (with both GEE and PAC) as is Norwegian (Inmarsat), as noted above. That still almost certainly excludes Thales and Gogo from being the vendor of choice based on the unique radomes those two use.
While not conclusive the various data suggest that Panasonic is the likely winner here if 100% coverage matters. Viasat could also be in play. Hopefully we’ll know soon enough.
Perhaps the bigger question to answer is why Aeromexico would choose to diversify its vendors. Cost for service delivery is the most obvious reason but airlines consider service, coverage area, hardware reliability and more in such decisions. This case is more interesting than others given that Delta holds an ownership stake in Aeromexico and is Gogo’s largest customer by aircraft committed/installed. To have one of its close partners veer away raises more questions than there are answers.
Header Image: 737MAX with the radome on top by John Crowley via Flickr/CC BY-SA; cropped/annotated.