Two for the road…Etihad reveals OnAir as connectivity partner for portion of Airbus fleet

January 23, 2012

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Mary 150x150 Two for the road...Etihad reveals OnAir as connectivity partner for portion of Airbus fleetLast week the aviation press was abuzz with news that Etihad Airways has reduced its orders for Airbus A350-1000s from 25 to 19 aircraft.

The attention paid to Etihad’s decision (what, if anything, does this mean for the -1000?) might explain why the carrier’s announcement that it has ignited in-flight connectivity on three Airbus A330-300s and a single Airbus A320 (with another A320 on the way) was all but ignored.

But the connectivity deal (Inmarsat L-band satellite-supported mobile and Wi-Fi for the widebodies/mobile for the narrowbodies) is notable for a number of reasons. While not explicitly mentioned in the press release these Etihad aircraft have been fitted with OnAir connectivity, even though the airline last year selected Panasonic Avionics to provide Ku-band satellite-based connectivity (plus embedded IFE) for its entire long-haul fleet of widebody aircraft under a $1 billion agreement that includes a full service maintenance contract.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that the OnAir installation represents a mixture of both linefit and retrofit programmes. So we can’t necessarily chalk it up to a sweetheart deal for Airbus factory-fit connectivity between OnAir (a joint venture between SITA and Airbus) and Etihad. “The three A330s are retrofitted and the two A320s are linefitted,” confirms a spokeswoman for OnAir.

Apparently Etihad didn’t want to create confusion in the marketplace because its press release mentioned nada about OnAir. Instead, the carrier announced that its “first aircraft to offer in-flight connectivity for passengers have officially taken to the skies”.

During the launch phase, the carrier will offer mobile and tablet connectivity from USD 10 and laptop Wi-Fi Internet connectivity from USD 20. Mobile telephone calls will be charged according to the international roaming rates of guests’ mobile network provider.

Asked why Etihad has opted to offer two connectivity solutions, Panasonic vice-president, global communications services David Bruner suggests that the carrier “had a unique situation where they had a super good deal on four airplanes and that was done before we did our deal. It was easy to do at the time, but they’ve evaluated the marketplace and they’ve now elected our system on every new aircraft going forward for the next ten years.”

Even so, the fact that Etihad has opted for two connectivity systems indicates that there is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all connectivity solution for individual airlines, let alone the industry as a whole.

We saw a clear example of this last year when United-Continental announced plans to fit over 200 Boeing aircraft operated by Continental with LiveTV/ViaSat’s Ka-band connectivity solution, but later announced it would fit the remainder of its mainline fleet with Panasonic Avionics’ Ku-band system. Before that, Emirates tapped Panasonic partner AeroMobile for mobile connectivity on a large portion of its fleet but later contracted OnAir for Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity on its Airbus A380s.

We can expect to see more of the same in the future, as airlines juggle the needs of their passengers with their partners’ ability to deliver and install connectivity kit when their aircraft enter scheduled C-checks, and the price being quoted at the time.

With specific regard to Etihad, I’d imagine the airline was also under some real or perceived pressure to bring connectivity to passengers in the very near term, since other Middle Eastern carriers – namely Emirates, Gulf Air and Oman Air – have made clear strides in this regard.

Meanwhile, engineering and maintenance houses that are capable of swapping out one connectivity system for another could realise a whole new revenue stream, perhaps even more so now that OnAir has defined an upgrade strategy to Inmarsat’s Ka-band-based Global Xpress service (which starts to come on line in 2013) and Panasonic is moving towards a near-global Ku-band offering.

Stephane Bollon, sales director of Aeroconseil, an engineering firm that has worked with both the OnAir and Panasonic systems, tells the APEX editor’s blog: “Some 60% of the world fleet is owned by lessors. Imagine a lessor is ordering a Boeing 777 with Panasonic Avionics’ in-flight connectivity system and is leasing it to an airline for five years. Once the contract expires, the lessor then leases the aircraft to another airline, which happens to have a contact with OnAir for connectivity on the rest of its fleet. What will the lessor do? It will change the system to OnAir, and that is a new modification for on board. That is why the market is good for us is the coming years.”

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About Mary Kirby

Editor in Chief - APEX Media Platform | Previously Senior Editor at Flight International where she led the magazine's coverage of in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) and aircraft interiors | Former proprietor of the highly-regarded Runway Girl blog, which focused on the passenger experience | Regularly speaks at industry conferences about airborne communications, ancillary revenue opportunities for airlines and social media | You can connect with Mary on Twitter, LinkedIn

View all posts by Mary Kirby
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