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Spirit Airlines made a major move in May 2018 announcing plans to fit its full fleet with WiFi. Not only would it choose a new product from Thales, but the carrier would expedite the deployment. Spirit President Ted Christie declared at that time, “By Summer 2019, every plane in our fleet should be fully equipped with Thales’ state-of-the-art connectivity service to keep our Guests connected in the skies.” Since that time, however, little has gone to plan.
The installations began in September 2018 and stopped soon thereafter. While rumors ran rampant about what was causing the delays Thales remained mum, insisting that it was working towards solutions but declining to name the culprit. Both parties tried to downplay the initial delay reports, suggesting that they would only last a month or two. A Thales representative at the time even suggested that, while the company is operating as the integrator, the “issue is bigger than Thales” in terms of cause and outside the company’s control. Moreover, it was suggested that rather than a hardware challenge the delays were mostly tied to “human capital in terms of putting people on aircraft.”
A year later, in September 2019, Thales’s Craig Dixon announced at APEX EXPO in Los Angeles that the company was “quite pleased with the program.” Moreover, he noted, “We are now completely confident that all of the technical issues that have emerged through our testing are behind us and we’re working with Spirit to support them on their timeline.” Turns out that confidence was slightly misplaced. The two companies had an additional five aircraft installed, bringing the total to ten, but those installations halted again. This time we know for sure: The problem lies in the antenna systems.
The latest implementation plan expects the existing antenna hardware to be removed starting in January 2020 and replaced with a revised kit. That system will require testing before the installations can accelerate. Given Spirit’s aggressive fleet scheduling it is unclear that too many planes will get the newer solution on board before the summer peak season begins.
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Given the additional testing requirements and the uncertain timing over access to aircraft for installations it now seems clear that the Spirit Airlines fleet will not be fully equipped by the end of 2020 as was previously suggested. Perhaps the only silver lining in these delays is that more aircraft will be able to benefit from the SES-17 Ka-band satellite launch when it happens. That effort currently aims to orbit in earl 2021.
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