Air Canada‘s 737 MAX 8 is sporting some new bling. The first of the company’s MAX deliveries, ship C-FTJV, spent a few weeks in the shop at Kelowna between 8 November and 20 December 2017. When it returned to service it was carrying a radome on board for inflight connectivity. Who is proving that service? Neither the airline nor any of the connectivity vendors have claimed it yet. Digging in to the details suggests a possible answer.
Every other Air Canada plane flying with connectivity today has a Gogo system on board. The long-haul fleet is getting the 2Ku product while the short-haul operation carries ATG or 2Ku today. That position would seem to place Gogo in the driver’s seat for securing the 737 MAX contract. Alas, the radome installed on C-FTJV does not look like the Gogo 2Ku kit (zoom in on any of the linked images below for more on that).
The kit is being installed after-market rather than on the Boeing line at Renton. That move doesn’t necessarily include or exclude any vendors but we do know that Global Eagle‘s product is available line-fit and the Panasonic Avionics solution is close if not there already. Still, the shape of the radome suggests that neither of those are in play for Air Canada either.
Indeed, the shape and style of the radome appears to match most closely with what Thales installed for JetBlue and United Airlines, delivering Ka-band connectivity through the Viasat network. But the Thales/Viasat relationship is essentially dead at this point; it is highly unlikely that Viasat is involved in the new Air Canada network if it is a Thales radome on top of the plane.
Is Air Canada the Thales FlytLIVE launch customer?
In March 2017 Thales announced a new partnership with SES and Hughes to deliver Ka-band connectivity in the Americas. The deal would leverage Hughes hardware on the aircraft as well as Hughes (EchoStar XVII, EchoStar XIX) and SES (AMC-15, AMC-16, eventually SES-17) satellites for delivering coverage throughout the Americas. At that time Thales’ VP VP Global Sales William Huot-Marchand also suggested that a customer announcement was likely “in the coming months.” Such an announcement has not yet materialized.
In multiple interviews since that time the company has been careful in choosing language to describe the progress of the testing and certification of the product as well as potential customer news. While never confirming that the hardware is on any aircraft Thales marked several milestones in the development of its new FlytLIVE platform. At each step it reiterated the expectation for commercial service in late 2017. And, while it is unclear if the system is active on the Air Canada frame, it was flying in late December 2017, meeting that target date.
One mitigating factor in the selection of FlytLIVE as the service for Air Canada’s 737 MAX fleet is the coverage footprint. The 737 MAX fleet is already flagged for service to Europe and the current Ka-band coverage for Thales FlytLIVE does not include service across the Atlantic. That puts many of the potential Air Canada MAX routes outside coverage for the next few years. Fortunately the SES-17 launch initially slated for 2020 will address that shortcoming:
SES-17, which was procured in September 2016, will cover North America, South America, Central America, the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean, and is expected to be delivered in 2020.
The SES-17 launch slipped to 2021 with the selection of Arianespace as the launch partner. As an all-electric satellite it will take 4-6 months to reach orbit after that. With additional testing it could be late 2021 or early 2022 before that Ka-band capacity is operational for the Thales FlytLIVE service.
What about the passengers?
Assuming the Air Canada 737 MAX fleet carries a provider other that Gogo (a solid bet based on the radome shape) that means the carrier will operate with multiple connectivity providers. Delivering a consistent user experience in that situation is a tremendous challenge for an airline. How, for example, will that work with the company’s latest offer for top-tier elites: A complimentary Gogo subscription.
United’s early efforts in that space have delivered only sporadic moments of progress; the company still does not offer a consistent user interface or payment scheme across its three different systems. Virgin America faces similar passenger experience challenges with its split service, though that will disappear soon enough. Southwest Airlines delivers a consistent user interface with service coming from both Panasonic and Global Eagle. It can be done but it is neither trivial nor perfect every time.
Even with different pricing schemes Lufthansa Group airlines are delivering long-haul connectivity via PAC’s eXConnect platform and short-haul via Inmarsat‘s Global Xpress platforms today. That is all handled under the FlyNet branding that is specific to the airlines. As David Coiley, Inmarsat’s vice-president of Aviation, explains, “It is still FlyNet. There are consistencies of look and feel so that passengers don’t get confused. We want things to be as seamless as possible. As long as it navigates and looks the same, most passengers can work with that.”
Header image: Air Canada’s 737 MAX; image courtesy of the airline