Monday, 18 February 2008

Runway Girl Takes Flight While Playing Ring Girl to AirCell and Row 44

Hello Runway Girl readers,

The time has finally come for me to transition from Blogger to my journalistic home, Flight Global. What better way to celebrate than with a blog post that shows just how competitive the in-flight connectivity sector has become? Many thanks to the CEOs of AirCell and Row 44, Jack Blumenstein and John Guidon, respectively, for their candid thoughts.

Here's the blog - - but here's a little taste:

Blumenstein says: "The only thing I know of with Row 44 is temporary authority on a month-to-month basis to do ground trials. They don’t have the authority to fly anything at least from [what we see] on the public record.”

Guidon says: "Rather than engaging in a war of words, we’re circumspect about what we say in our releases to the public and we prefer to let our actions speak for us. We cordially suggest that Jack [Blumenstein] might follow the same policy.”

Who wins round one? You know I'll let you decide. And give me your thoughts about this post, my Flight blog in general, and anything else on your mind, won't you please?

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein Admits "Biggest Mistake" of Career

Say what you will about Mesa's top guy, Jonathan Ornstein, the man speaks his mind. In a candid interview with me today, Ornstein admitted that Mesa's decision not to invest in US Airways during the Star Alliance member's 2005 exit from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and merger with America West Airlines was a big ole mistake.

"Clearly the company would be in far different shape if we had in fact invested in US Airways," says Ornstein.

He adds: "I would say probably the single biggest mistake in my career was not making that investment..."

A number of outside investors were involved in the US Airways/America West deal, including Air Wisconsin, which, as one insider puts it: stayed in business, got a new contract and on top of that, made a handsome return on its investment.

There is also no doubt that Mesa has had a rocky time of late. Its profitability has taken a hit, and its reserves have depleted after being ordered to post a $90 million bond as security for a judgment against the company in favor of Hawaiian Airlines (you'll recall how things got rather ugly in court with Hawaiian accusing Mesa's former CFO Peter Murnane of spoiling evidence and the Phoenix-based regional arguing that he was deleting pornographic content from work computers).

Lest you start counting Mesa out, however, the company is vigorously defending itself and feels confident it will eventually prevail. Remember also that Mesa boasts feeder deals with Delta, United and US Airways (it does admit that 50-seat flying for United has been "significantly unprofitable").

To be fair, things haven't been all sweetness and light since US Airways exited bankruptcy. Merged labor deals continue to appear out of near-term reach for US Airways. And the carrier has faced quite a lot of negative press about operational disruptions, etc (especially in Philly). But let's give credit where credit is due. That was one sweet honey-pot of a merger deal.

(Ornstein photo from official bio at )

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Sweet Shiny Cockpit: Boeing 787 From The Inside

Mike Carriker, chief pilot for the Boeing 787 program, in a nice new report lays out the twinjet's flight deck design and features, as well as Boeing's philosophy.

Carriker notes, for example, that more features are provided as basic including: dual HUD, vertical situation display, large format map 1280 NM range, independent TCAS displays, RNP .1, full face O2 masks, triple tuning control panels, ATC uplink preview windows/MCP, electronic flight bag, electronic checklist, enhanced ground proximity warning system, airport map, single SATCOM w/full provisions for dual*, flight deck printer, HF data link*, light interphone system, dual cockpit voice recording (extended recording), auto scan weather radar, full time tactical map, and message based synoptic selection.

*Optional on the 787-3

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Swift Aviation Completes A Giant Task; Eyes Fleet Growth

If someone asked me to name the winner of the Super Bowl – and told me I couldn’t Google the answer – I’d be hard-pressed to say who played whom or where the event was held (unless the Pittsburgh Steelers were involved). Please don’t judge me. I spent some rather formative years in Ireland and then moved to western Pennsylvania.

But even I admit I was impressed by some Super Bowl stats (and glossy pics) made available by Swift Aviation Group, a fixed based operator (FBO) with a luxury terminal at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Swift, which was the official FBO of the Super Bowl Host Committee last weekend, handled 455 aircraft and pumped over 280,000 gallons of Jet A fuel during this period. The company filled up all of the available parking space at its terminal as well as a special overflow area secured specifically for the Super Bowl (see pic to the right).

It was, by all accounts, a record for the company. In fact, it pretty much blew "the charts off on that", Swift Air VP of flight operations Michael White tells Runway Girl.

Okay, you ask: "What does all of this mean to me, a commerical air transport staffer, executive, enthusiast, avid Runway Girl reader (ahem)?" Well Swift’s charter airline, Swift Air, operates a fleet of 10 aircraft, including Cessna Citation and Embraer Legacy business jets and three 68-seat Boeing 737s (one former Icelandair bird and two ex-US Airways aircraft). It mainly flies for sports teams and corporations. And while Swift isn't interested in competing with scheduled carriers, it is eyeing fleet growth "and is looking at a handful of options right now", including more 737s, reveals White.

Should you be interested in chatting about these opportunities with Swift, you should know that the firm really hasn't looked outside of the 737 in terms of narrowbodies because it "likes the reliability", has a lot of experience with the type and "a lot of support with vendors and partners with that particular model", says White.

However, he adds: "We previously owned a 757 – we might look at that again at some point."

Very light jets might be on the horizon if a business case can be made. "We’re taking an optimistic view on that market until we make a determination. There is room for expansion but don’t know what our role will be at this point. [I'm] not sure that the model is mature enough to support it from a business perspective," says White.

Swift is also studying "other opportunities in other parts of the country"

All this action helps explain why the company recently announced it is one of the “few charter airlines in the country” to reach an agreement with the FAA to establish an aviation safety action program (ASAP), which encourages voluntary reporting of safety issues at airlines and maintenance centres.

“Participating in ASAP not only the right thing to do for our customers, it’s also a strategic business decision that we believe will set us apart from our competitors,” says White.

“In fact, we’re one of only a handful of companies to participate in all four areas of the program – pilots, maintenance, dispatch and flight attendants – even among the major commercial carriers.”

Monday, 11 February 2008

Hot Stuff: Banner Year For In-Flight Technology, Says IMDC

One of the most prominent consultancy firms in the in-flight entertainment and communication industry, Inflight Management Development Centre (IMDC), has released its latest forecast for 2008-2012. And the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA), in its own quarterly Avion magazine, has been good enough to break down some of the key points as follows:

  • Over 16,000 commercial jets are expected to be delivered over the period 2007-2012. Over 3,000 of these will be line-fitted with IFE.

  • The total value of line-fit IFE is estimated at over $4.6 billion for the period.

  • During 2007, airline expenditures on IFE hardware alone represented about $1.45 billion.

  • Another key milestone during 2007 was that airline expenditures in the seat market were expected to break through the $1 billion barrier.

  • 2008 is expected to be a very busy year for in-flight technology in general. It will most probably be a record year in terms of airline expenditures.

  • A number of connectivity solutions will enter operation during 2008. We are expecting rapid take-up rates in specific competitive markets such as North America, transatlantic and the Middle East.

  • Portable IFE had a relatively small base of $75 million for 2007. We expect double-digit growth for the next two to three years. Howeer, there will be consolidation in this sector as suppliers implement new business models.

Last September, at WAEA’s annual event, former IATA head – and current Thales Canada chairman - Pierre Jeanniot noted that the entire cabin environment is becoming a “driving force of airline business success”.

Though difficult to quantify an exact return on investment, he said, “investing in premium service is simply mandatory for any carrier committed to remain a credible player in that market segment”.

In light of IMDC's forecast, it appears that Jeanniot’s assessment of the industry was bang-on.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Hummers, Cocaine and IFE Prove a Skirt-Splitting Good Time

It was September 2003. The World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) was holding its annual conference and exhibition in Seattle. As usual I had booked my schedule to max-capacity, meeting with executives from in-flight entertainment (IFE) and communications firms during the day and writing late into the night about their plans. As an added convenience, I was pregnant – perhaps not noticeably so, but enough that I split my skirt while sitting down to a computer at Kinkos, where I was forced to set up residence after my laptop crapped out (pity me yet?).

Needless to say I was keen not to waste any precious time during the event. It turns out that’s exactly what I did when I met with executives from a now-shuttered US firm that called itself SkyWay Aircraft (also referred to as Sky Way).

You might recall this Florida company, venerable subsidiary of SkyWay Communications Holding. It announced it would develop a ground-to-air aircraft communication network built on technology formerly operated by AT&T Wireless Services’ defunct in-flight seat-back telephone service.

SkyWay’s strategy was to upgrade the airborne network - also known as Claircom - to provide state-of-the-art in-flight products, including high-speed Internet, telephone services, and advanced IFE systems. But the plan, in the kindest description, never grew legs.

SkyWay in early 2005 came under fire by certain shareholders, who accused it of falsely representing itself through US Securities & Exchange Commission filings and press releases, and of management for failing to disclose to shareholders that the firm “did not possess the technological capability of transmitting Internet access and voice and data access to commercial airliners as it purported”.

There was also the little matter of an alleged squandering of corporate assets and the purchase of six Hummer vehicles that executives “claimed would be used for ‘marketing’ activities”, among other alleged infractions. SkyWay executives resigned; the company went bankrupt.

Then, in what falls under the “you just can’t make this shit up” category, SkyWay’s former demonstrator aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 painted to resemble an aircraft used by the US Government, in 2006 was seized by Mexican customs officials after it was found to contain a mountain of cocaine. The aircraft flew from Caracas with two pilots and cargo of 100 suitcases, marked “private” no less, and each filled with 50kg (11lb) of the white stuff.

The story gets rather convoluted from there and a quick Google search will give you just about all you’d want to know about it (good luck sorting through the fact, fiction and conspiracy theory). An industry colleague of mine was kind enough to alert me to the latest unfolding drama involving the SkyWay name as reported by MadCow Morning News - which brings me back to my interview at WAEA. SkyWay didn’t have a booth at the 2003 event, but its president Brent Kovar agreed to sit down with me at one of the lunch tables (the hunger was on me and I was ready to eat the table. Luckily, I wasn't quite ready to eat the story).

During our conversation, I remember feeling rather sceptical about SkyWay’s whole offering (admittedly one did not need to be rocket scientist to feel that way – hey they were talking “algorithms” for goodness sake).

However, in light of all the action in the in-flight connectivity world today – and all the big claims - I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at the promises of would-be IFE/connectivity start-ups of yesteryear. Check out my original article below; it ran on Air Transport Intelligence. There are lessens here for all of us, including:

1) Don’t try to squeeze into your size six when you’re busting at the seams.

2) Eat your damn lunch.

3) Don’t mark drug-packed suitcases with the word “private”.

4) Don’t buy six Hummers – five will do.

5) And don’t make connectivity claims you can’t meet.

Oh that last one is a good one, eh? Several companies are planning to trial their connectivity systems onboard aircraft in the near-term – those who acquired real air-to-ground spectrum licenses and those who plan Ku band-based offerings. Who’s got the real goods? It won’t be long before we find out.

Sky Way pushes ahead with IFE business plan despite skepticism
Mary Kirby, Seattle (12Sep03, 05:41 GMT, 800 words)
US startup company Sky Way Aircraft insists it will be able to deliver on its ambitious goal to bring ultra high-speed voice and data services inflight by building on technology formerly operated by AT&T Wireless Services’ defunct inflight seat-back telephone service.
But many long-time industry executives attending the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) annual conference and exhibition this week in Seattle are responding to the company’s plan with skepticism.
Sky Way Aircraft’s strategy is to upgrade the former AT&T Wireless airborne network - also known as Claircom - to provide an array of what it claims will be state-of-the-art inflight products, including high-speed Internet, telephone services, advanced inflight entertainment (IFE) systems with audio/video on demand and video monitored security services, among other inflight offerings.
The company recently acquired and is working to upgrade the 166-tower North American airborne telephone network from AT&T Wireless, under undisclosed terms.
About 60% of the US fleet has the Claircom system installed in their aircraft, according to Sky Way Aircraft. The company claims it is talking to all of these airlines to upgrade their Claircom systems with the Sky Way Aircraft solution. It recently signed a contract with US charter carrier Southeast Airlines to install an IFE system on the airline’s fleet of Boeing MD-80s and McDonnell Douglas DC-9s.
Speaking to ATI at WAEA, Sky Way Aircraft president Brent Kovar says the Florida-based company will be able to deliver 15 Mbps to and from a modified NATS equipped aircraft using existing antennas and radios.
“We replace the [Claircom] box with a new Unix server. When we do that, we put our patented algorithm inside, which runs internally,” says Kovar, who invented the algorithm. The result, he says, would boost the old 9.6Kb circuit mode Claircom network “some 1,667 times” to a bandwidth of 15 Mbps.
Kovar says Sky Way Aircraft parent SkyWay Communications Holding has been operating a ground-based wireless business in Florida for a few years, and will use some of its parent’s patented technology for its Sky Way Aircraft venture.
However, Sky Way Aircraft has some hurdles to jump before getting its system off the ground, such as securing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval to use some of the spectrum that went unused when AT&T Wireless exited the market.
“We’re working with the FCC and feel we’ll be the second company licensed - after Verizon Airfone,” says Kovar.
FCC hearings are being held to determine the best way to use the spectrum. But Kovar anticipates Sky Way Aircraft will receive FCC approval by the fourth quarter.
Kovar says he and other Sky Way Aircraft executives attended the WAEA show this week “to feel the temperature of the business and to see who the competition is”. So far, he insists, “we haven’t found any competitors ... the only one may be Inmarsat.”
But Sky Way Aircraft’s plan has raised several eyebrows at the WAEA show. Top industry executives question how a fledgling company can transform outdated equipment to provide ultra high-speed connectivity to aircraft, something that the biggest connectivity providers have been working to achieve for years.
“I can’t tell you how many times I've heard someone say: ‘I've invented an algorithm that can do this and that’,” says one source.
But Kovar remains undeterred. “I think they won’t be skeptical for long,” he says. “We have general aviation aircraft [equipped with the Sky Way solution], which we have been showing the airlines ... showing how it works and what it does. A lot of people feel AT&T abandoned [the Claircom system] too early. It had a lot of potential.”
He says the company also has displayed some of its inflight security applications to US government officials.
Sky Way is in talks with several companies regarding partnership agreements. One such company - Boulder, Colorado-based Air Base - has signed a letter of intent to maintain the entire Sky Way system, as well as provide program management, repairs, product support and logistics.
Air Base, which currently provides an array of services to major airlines including in-cabin maintenance, in the past conducted repairs of the Claircom system for AT&T Wireless.
Chad Nimeric, an engineer at Air Base, tells ATI that a contract is likely to be signed with Sky Way “in 45 to 60 days”.
Although Nimeric has seen the Sky Way Aircraft system work in a laboratory, he has yet to see it displayed on a full-scale ground station. “I concur that there is some skepticism [in the industry]. But Sky Way Aircraft seems to have the engineering and the patented technology right on the money,” says Nimeric.
He adds: “I think in the next six months we’ll find out if it is true or not. We’re looking forward to seeing if they can do what they say they can do. We hope they can.”
Source: Air Transport Intelligence news

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Seeing Stars: EMS and Starling Join Forces to Capture Ku band Connectivity Business in the USA (What About Mijet?)

A few weeks ago Panasonic Avionics revealed it is still shopping around for an antenna for its in-flight connectivity solution, after deciding that Starling’s Mijet antenna was not yet up to its specs. Today, Starling announced a memorandum of agreement with EMS Technologies to offer a new Ku band antenna for the US market. Coincidence? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

But the timing, to say the least, is very interesting indeed. “We want a better overall performance that will meet our requirements not today but meet our requirements down the road,” Panasonic director of strategic product marketing David Bruner told me in January.

Perhaps Panasonic will get its wish. Under the agreement disclosed today, Israel's Starling and Georgia-headquartered EMS’s Defense & Space Systems (D&SS) division will offer an ultra-lightweight (45lb), low-profile antenna that will enable “full-featured broadband in-flight applications, such as the Internet, VPN [virtual private network], PDA, VoIP [voice over IP], e-mail, mobile phones, video conferencing, instant messaging and various entertainment applications, including video-on-demand, live TV, online gaming and multimedia applications”.

But here’s a yummy piece of info for ya. The joint product with EMS is a mature product and will be ready within a few months!!! So says Starling VP marketing and sales Jacob Keret, who was kind enough to call me just before he hopped on a flight. Thank You!

Oh yes, and before you write off Mijet, you should know that it has a customer, thank you very much. Certification is underway, and little sister mini-Mijet will be certified in the third quarter. Stay tuned for more info about this – I’ve got to write some follow-up articles for Air Transport Intelligence and Flight first!

But before I dash off, let me leave you with this thought. EMS direct broadcast satellite (DBS) antenna systems are currently sold through JetBlue Airways subsidiary LiveTV. JetBlue general manager of product development Brett Muney said yesterday at an EMS-sponsored event in DC that a broadband offering is among the in-flight connectivity solutions being studied by the airline. Could LiveTV use a new EMS/Starling antenna to offer satellite-based connectivity onboard JetBlue A320s? What about LiveTV's other customers - Frontier and WestJet (and now Continental Airlines)?

Anyone dizzy yet?

(Photo above right of Runway Girl with Panasonic Avionics CEO Paul Margis and WestJet executive Darren Marchinko at a reception last September during WAEA in Toronto)

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

That's Entertainment: In-flight Connectivity's Top Dogs Don't Mess Around

Put AeroMobile, EMS SATCOM, JetBlue Airways, Inmarsat, OnAir and the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) in one room and what do you get? A helping of in-flight connectivity insight (and a dash of disagreement)! During a National Press Club briefing hosted by ever-more-visible player EMS this morning, some of the top dogs of the industry chatted about everything from satellite launches in Kazakhstan (Inmarsat) and near-term certifications (AeroMobile) to broadband considerations (JetBlue) and US regulatory impediments concerning in-flight cell phone usage.

A key moment came when OnAir CEO Benoit Debains claimed that the Airbus/SITA joint venture is “the only company able to provide Blackberry service onboard aircraft”. Needless to say AeroMobile director, marketing and strategic relations David Coiley had a few thoughts about that.

I’ve love to get into all the juicy details right now, but I’m on deadline with a few stories from the event (and it’s nearing bedtime in the Kirby household, which now includes an over-fed cat and a miniature poodle who has yet to learn not to do her business on my living room floor).

Before I go, however, let me leave you with some advice from EMS SATCOM vice president and general manager Gary Hebb, who was in attendance at today’s conference. In terms of in-flight entertainment and connectivity:

1) Don’t believe any dates – they’re never true.

2) Don’t believe any bandwidth claims. They might be true sometimes but not often enough to make a difference.

3) There are trials and there are “trials”. Some trials are to prove the technology. They might have stuff from Best Buy held together with duct tape. The trials with Air France and Qantas are much more advanced. They're testing passenger reaction and business models.

4) One has to be very smooth to get money out of passengers.

(Photo of Hebb above left)

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Trend Watch: Airline Take-up of Live Television/Connectivity Grows

The adoption by US carriers of in-seat live satellite television – together with connectivity services - is growing leaps and bounds.

This trend is “really exciting”, says Panasonic director of strategic product marketing David Bruner. “The US market could end up in the next couple of years with a totally different experience when you get onboard the airplane than what you saw a couple years ago.”

A strategy launched at inception by JetBlue Airways through its LiveTV subsidiary is being copied on a broad scale. Frontier and WestJet are long-time customers of LiveTV’s in-flight television system. Continental Airlines recently announced plans to install LiveTV across a large portion of its Boeing narrowbody fleet.

Delta Air Lines, through its Song experiment, followed JetBlue's lead when it began offering Panasonic Avionics-manufactured in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems – with live television – onboard domestic flights. It later announced it would extend the offering to its entire transcontinental fleet.

Start-up Virgin America, meanwhile, offers television and (video on demand) VOD onboard its Airbus A320s.

Added to this, JetBlue, Frontier and Continental have all gone public with plans to offer connectivity over LiveTV technology, while Virgin America plans to offer AirCell connectivity.

That the combo of live television and connectivity is proving hard for carriers to resist is evident by the number of requests for quotations (RFQs) in the market right now, say Bruner.

Although LiveTV intends to offer live television and light connectivity to airlines, Panasonic is going a different direction. In addition to television and VOD, the company is offering satellite-based “full Internet connectivity and the broadest broadband in the world”.

A customer has not yet been announced but Panasonic is confident installations will begin on a US airline by year-end. “The airlines are now very focused on not what is the cost of the system, but what is the net cost of the system if it generates revenue. It may pay for itself and make its customers happy and bring you more customers. That's a positive thing,” says Bruner.

So are the Canadians next to introduce connectivity? As mentioned earlier, WestJet's aircraft are equipped with LiveTV. Air Canada, on the other hand, offers Thales IFE.

(Photo above right of JetBlue's LiveTV system)