Space-based air traffic monitoring company Aireon is set to begin making payments to Iridium following a financial boost announced today. NATS, the UK’s air traffic control organization and Aireon customer stumped up $69 million for a 10% stake in the Aireon operation. That equity boost gives NATS a seat on the board and gives Aireon liquidity to begin paying Iridium for hosting its ADS-B receivers on the NEXT satellites in orbit.
— Aireon (@AireonLLC) May 16, 2018
Aireon is on the hook for $200 million in hosting fees payable to Iridium. Those fees initially were scheduled for payment in 2016-2017 but the timing slipped as the Iridium NEXT constellation launches also slipped. The “missing” money challenge forced Iridium to adjust its financial outlook over the past several years and remained a large question mark for both organizations. The $69 million does not solve all the problems for either organization but it is a significant step forward for both.
Why now? "We've always known it was a good[technical] idea. Now we know it is a good idea to be an investor." –@NATS CEO Rolfe
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) May 16, 2018
Aireon’s customer list includes major Air Navigation Service Provider organizations including NATS, NavCanada and Ireland’s IAA. These last two manage the incredibly congested North Atlantic corridor and depend on the improved visibility space-based ADS-B offers to reduce spacing between aircraft. This increases the number of planes that can be safely dispatched across the ocean and also saves on fuel, reducing carbon emissions along the way. African ANSPs will dramatically increase the aircraft positional data available, improving safety in that region as well.
Investing in Aireon is the best way for us to shape the future of the service in a way that benefits our customers in the UK and elsewhere, and to demonstrate NATS’ commitment to playing a leading role in the development of the next generation of global air traffic technology. – Martin Rolfe, NATS Chief Executive Officer
A notable holdout – and huge question mark in the overall financial viability of the Aireon operation – is the United States FAA. The US is not yet committed as an Aireon customer, though most either hope or expect that will come to pass eventually. Evolution of the ATC environment in the US proves to be a political challenge as much as a technical one. Inconsistent funding and uncertain mandates from authorities slows progress on that front. So does hesitation on the part of commercial airlines to equip their planes with the necessary ADS-B transmitters. A 1 January 2020 deadline for such looms over the industry and the FAA insists it will not waver from such.