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Satellite communication saved airlines $3 billion–study

SATELLITE communication (satcom) in the cockpit has saved airlines more than $3 billion, thanks to safety and efficiency benefits, according to a study released on March 7 by Helios Underwriting Plc. and Inmarsat Plc.

Satcom is the use of voice and data services via satellite to communicate with aircraft outside the range of conventional ground radar and Very High Frequency (VHF) stations, such as over oceanic regions. It is typically used for air-traffic control (ATC) and airline operations. The inaugural study, conducted by Helios, valued the benefit of satcom to airlines between 2001 and 2016.

The study found that one single ATC benefit mechanism—reducing “separation minima”, which allows aircraft to fly closer together safely—was responsible for savings of $890 million alone, according to Inmarsat.

“Thanks to satcom, planes can now fly within 30 nautical miles of each other because of safe, reliable communication and tracking,” Inmarsat said. The global mobile satellite communications provider explained that, previously, aircraft were required to maintain a separation of 100 nautical miles. This allows aircraft to fly closer together and means more planes can fly in a given airspace, which is particularly beneficial over the busy skies of the North Atlantic.

If an aircraft is not equipped with satellite communication capability, it must maintain the 100 nautical mile separation and is not permitted to fly in certain areas.

Increasing airspace capacity also leads to more aircraft being able to choose optimum flight levels, saving time and fuel.

According to Inmarsat, the $890-million saving is a major part of the $1.1-billion total ATC saving identified by the study.

A further $1.9 billion is saved, thanks to the ability of aircraft to communicate with their Airline Operations Centre (AOC). AOC applications use real-time information to help airlines improve flight safety or provide a more efficient service at a lower cost. Delay management and scheduling is improved, fleets and flight crew can be better managed, maintenance can be taken care of and turnaround time on the ground is reduced.

Traditionally, AOC communication is provided by the exchange of simple text messages between the pilot and the controller. As satcom bandwidth capacity increases, bringing broadband connectivity to the cockpit, there will be an explosion of IP-based AOC applications, allowing airlines to further optimize flight operations and fleet management. For example, an aircraft’s health can be constantly monitored, and any maintenance issue signaled ahead to the ground crew so parts and maintenance staff are ready as soon as the aircraft lands. Until now, most maintenance information was delivered upon landing, with potential for delaying speedy resolution of an issue.

Broadband connectivity will also help with urgent ATC demands, as our skies see ever more traffic. Rizal Raoul Reyes

By 2030, there will be more passengers in the sky each year (7 billion) than there are people on the ground right now. They will fly in 40,000 aircraft, the majority of which will be connected.

The Helios study looked at benefits over oceanic regions, but it also highlights how satcom can complement existing ground-to-air data communications over land too. Savings over continental regions could equal those over the oceanic regions.

For example, in the congested airspace of Europe, the Iris Precursor project has been established by the European Space Agency with support from Inmarsat and other aviation companies. It uses satcom to allow precise ‘4D’ flight path control, which optimises flight speed and descent profiles. It is designed to dramatically reduce delays, particularly around large hubs.

“This is the first time that the benefits of satellite communication have been quantified and the results are impressive,” Helios Managing Director Nick McFarlane said. “The technology has already delivered huge benefits to the industry and emerging applications mean the trend is set to continue, in fact it is set to accelerate.”

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