Smaller Biz Jets Join Connectivity Surge

If expectations of connectivity are growing in the commercial airline market, they are already being outstripped by those in the executive aircraft sector.  

The typical passenger on board a business jet increasingly expects that connectivity – and of a high standard – will be a sine qua non on his journey.  

The pandemic saw an influx of new clients for business aircraft operators as executives who wanted to minimize the risk of infection by avoiding airports and commercial airliners instead headed to the private lounges and uncrowded cabins of business jet operators.  

“Individuals who flew high-end business class moved into business aviation and haven’t left,” SmartSky Networks’ VP of marketing and partnerships, Britton Wanick said.

“The demographics [of business jet usage] have shifted to a younger, more digital generation. People used to say that flying was a time to relax for a little bit. It’s completely different now. They want to be connected all the time. That means facetiming with friends, doing work and streaming.” 

Those activities demand high levels of onboard connectivity – to such an extent that these newer, younger passengers “will make buying decisions based on that.” 

All this is good news for companies such as specialist providers of inflight air-to-ground connectivity for business aircraft SmartSky Networks and their colleagues Liberty Partners, which have recently completed their latest Supplementary Type Certificate (STC) project, on the Cessna Citation X series.

This involved the installation and certification of SmartSky’s hardware by its contractors Liberty Partners. This is the latest of several aircraft types on which the two companies have combined to install connectivity solutions.

“From advising on designs, to completing certifications, and manufacturing parts for installation, the work with SmartSky exercises each part of a process that delivers a quality experience for our customers,” Liberty Partners’ Engineering and Certification Manager, Aaron Duncan said.

One hurdle in fitting air to ground connectivity equipment to executive aircraft is finding the necessary locations on board: “Space is at a premium,” Duncan noted.

“Usually the antenna provisions are the most challenging, because the aircraft are already outfitted with quite a few systems more than the basic ones [and] the equipment manufacturers specify criteria for separation and locations that are acceptable for their system performance.”

“[Liberty Partners] work with us to ensure that the equipment doesn’t interfere with other RF signatures etc., and work through the approvals process with the FAA and other regulatory bodies,” SmartSky’s Wanick added. 

Power requirements, weight and drag factors also have to be taken into consideration in relatively small airframes. With those considerations in mind, SmartSky is working on a ‘lite’ product to specifically address the needs of the business aviation marketplace.

SmartSky’s previous projects have included aircraft from the Bombardier, Gulfstream and Embraer stables. Its Embraer STC, for example, covers the Brazilian manufacturer’s 135 and 145 regional jets, which are flown both by private operators and by the flight departments of large companies as corporate shuttles: “That makes a nice launch pad for us to branch into commercial aviation on regional aircraft,” Wanick said.

The potential market for companies such as Smartsky and Liberty is considerable; Wanick reckons that, from an addressable market of 25,000-26,000 business aviation aircraft , only around 6,000 currently have broadband connectivity. SmartSky focuses on the continental U.S. at present, but in the longer term, aims to move into adjacent markets in Canada and Mexico.

“We have roughly 5,000 aircraft covered under current STCs and are actively adding new STCs as we speak,” Wanick said. “We will continue that effort to build out and cover the largest portion of the business aviation market.” 

Both companies see a trend towards connectivity installation on ever-smaller jets. “[Embraer] Phenoms are now being outfitted,” said Duncan. “We’ve even seen turboprops such as the Pilatus PC-12 and general aviation aircraft getting outfitted with these systems. That’s down to a combination of it becoming more expected and more commonplace.”

Over recent years, onboard connectivity capabilities have expanded from simply allowing e-mail messaging to streaming videos and even on-line gaming, should that be wanted.

At present, Duncan said, “Expectations are always higher  than you’re going to get. When you walk on board [but] the technology is allowing that to catch up.”

Alan Dron

Based in London, Alan is Europe & Middle East correspondent at Air Transport World.