Row 44 airborne at last with Southwest Airlines
The temperature of the connectivity stew has just been raised another couple of degrees with the news that Row 44 has finally launched its planned trial with Southwest Airlines.
The Californian Ku-band Internet access provider looked good to go when it spectacularly took the wraps off its aircraft equipment at September’s WAEA show in Long Beach, demonstrating the AeroSat antenna and the four system boxes aboard a vintage Grumman Albatross flying boat. But the company reckoned without the US regulatory mills and the machinations of the competition (Inflight Online, December 27, 2008), and the start of trials aboard an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 and four from Southwest drifted from the fourth quarter of 2008 to some time soon this year.
The waiting came to an end earlier today, when Southwest announced that it had equipped one aircraft for the Row 44 service – megabit-rated Internet access and email via passenger laptops and a cabin WiFi network - and would have three ready within the next three or four weeks for a trial scheduled to last “a few months”. The airline has also teamed with Yahoo! to offer passengers a special inflight homepage with destination-relevant content.
“Internet connectivity has been high on our list of priorities for quite some time,” said Dave Ridley, Southwest’s senior VP for marketing and revenue management. “We believe that aircraft-to-satellite technology is the most robust solution, and we look forward to hearing the feedback of our customers.”
Passengers boarding the trials aircraft will find placards and instruction sheets promoting and explaining the service, which has yet to receive full Federal Communications Commission approval. They will be able to log on free of charge with their own WiFi-capable laptops, iPhones and other smartphones.
The Yahoo! Homepage, cached on the onboard system server, includes a flight tracker and daily local news and information. The tracker is designed to allow passengers to follow the flightpath and view points of interest via images from Flickr. Maintained by Yahoo!, the page covers local events, weather and news and provides guides to restaurants, attractions and shopping at the destination. Also featured are a number of Yahoo! games.
The real-time data generated by passenger Web surfing and email will flow through a spine-mounted antenna developed and supplied by AeroSat of New Hampshire. “This trial means we are on the brink of a huge leap forward,” Bill McNary, AeroSat’s business development VP, said today.
Designated HR6400, the antenna is a mechanically steered lens-horn design with 64 radiating elements arranged in two arrays of 32. AeroSat says it can maintain constant performance from -10 degrees to +90 degrees of elevation - the below-zero elevation capability will make it possible to retain lock if the aircraft banks away from the satellite when it is close to the horizon. The antenna fits beneath an existing AeroSat inflight TV radome that has been installed on all Boeing types and nearly all the Airbuses.
Designed to deliver up to 30-80Mbit/sec from the satellite to the aircraft, and 0.75Mbit/sec in the opposite direction, the system comprises the antenna itself, its control unit, a high-power amplifier and the radome. Total weight is 74lb - antenna 35lb, control unit 7lb, amplifier 20lb and radome 12lb – and swept volume 32in in diameter by 7in high.