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

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