American Airlines has made no secret about its love for the Viasat inflight wifi connectivity offering. With more than 450 single-aisle aircraft fitted today the carrier is reporting higher customer satisfaction scores with the service. It is also rolling out new offerings like complimentary access to Apple Music on board the Viasat-equipped planes. It now appears that the program could spread to the twin aisle fleet. The 787s are now rumored to be picking up the Viasat connectivity package, shifting from the current Panasonic Avionics solution. American currently has 42 787s on order.
Such an implementation would take advantage of Viasat’s new Ku/Ka hardware kit, announced at Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg in April 2019. The new version of the hardware included an upgraded antenna and modem to improve performance and allow for access to more satellites. In many ways it is a short-term solution, but one that appears to be very much in demand. Even if only the 42 new American 787s (or some small subfleet from another carrier) take the hardware the effort to get it certified and installed is relatively low. Don Buchman, vice president and general manager for Commercial Aviation at Viasat, explained that recently as part of justifying the business case for the new Ku/Ka product launch:
Ku/Ka is part of the global story. ViaSat-3 is on the way…It is targeted at wide bodies. The missions are wide bodies that have a lot of Ka coverage but also needs Ku over the Pacific. And they want it now; they don’t want to wait for ViaSat-3 to be active a couple years from now. It will be particular subfleets to get connectivity on in the near term. There are a lot of opportunities with the current customer base and new customers.
Generally the development of new antenna systems is a long-term project with significant costs. For Viasat’s new Ku/Ka much of that burden was borne by the federal government. The system is installed and operational on “senior leadership aircraft” and handles the switching between Ku and Ka band networks seamlessly. As Buchman notes, “We had already done the [R&D] work and upgraded everything for our government customers. The real work here is getting the certifications.” The company has even tested roaming on to the O3b constellation, proving that it works in non-geostationary orbits.
American’s 787-8 fleet flies mostly on transatlantic routes today and plans more starting in late 2019 or early 2020. These are markets where the combination of ViaSat-2 and Ka-SAT provide end-to-end Ka-band coverage for the aircraft. Those planes also cross the Pacific, serving Beijing, Tokyo and Honolulu with the type. Similarly the planes make an occasional journey into South America. This route profile and growing fleet make it a reasonable fit for the new Ku/Ka offering.
The –8 fleet will grow again starting in early 2020 as new deliveries from Boeing show up at the airline. A decision on the connectivity platform for those planes needs to be made now and, even if Ka-band coverage is not available globally yet American Airlines appears willing to invest in that program. Given the satisfaction American has with the Viasat product the decision to not wait for full global Ka-band coverage appears a prudent one.
While this decision was almost certainly made before the failure of Intelsat 29e, forcing Panasonic Avionics to pursue mitigation plans for the loss of capacity in the Americas and across the Atlantic that incident certainly helps affirm the choice.
With respect to this specific customer opportunity Viasat remains mum, noting only that the new product is on the market and the company is actively shopping it with airlines. “Viasat is pursuing a number of international airline programs with the new hybrid Ku/Ka-band antenna, just as we do with all of our product offerings across the market segments. We don’t disclose details on those conversations.”
American Airlines also declined to comment specifically on this report. The carrier did, however, note its large install base of high-speed satellite-based wifi on board and that it would “of course examine every option to continue to increase our lead.”