We’re in the process of installing satellite Wi-Fi on our Boeing 747-400 wide-body aircraft that operate international routes. For our domestic routes, we’ve begun to outfit our Airbus A319 and A320 aircraft with Wi-Fi. Here we take you on a tour of the steps involved in preparing our planes to deliver Internet connectivity in the skies.
Installing satellite-based Wi-Fi is a complex, time-consuming and costly process but we’ve chosen this leading-edge technology to offer virtually uninterrupted connectivity* on laptops, smartphones and tablets during flights. Unlike air-to-ground (ATG) wireless technology, our global inflight Wi-Fi service uses an air-to-satellite signal to keep you connected even while you fly over international waters. In fact, we’re the first U.S.-based international carrier to offer customers the ability to stay connected to the Internet during long-haul overseas flights.
*Satellite coverage may experience outages for reasons such as government restrictions, weather and signal switching between satellite beams.
The flavors of inflight Wi-Fi
Before describing the installation process, let’s briefly cover the specific types of Wi-Fi that we offer: Panasonic Avionics Corporation’s Ku-band and LiveTV’s Ka-band. (On our p.s.® Premium Service aircraft flying between New York (JFK) and both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO), we provide wireless connectivity through Gogo® Internet service, an ATG technology.)
On our aircraft that fly long-haul international routes, this technology provides wireless connectivity via satellite, giving customers the ability to enjoy access to the Internet in places where air-to-ground connections are not possible. United is the launch customer for this leading-edge technology. No other airline is rolling out satellite Wi-Fi so extensively.
For our U.S.-based flights, we plan to install the most extensive high-bandwidth satellite technology on select aircraft with DIRECTV®. Currently, we’re in the process of being certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the equipment in each aircraft type, including a Ka-band antenna and an accompanying radome. We expect to begin offering this service at the end of this year.
United custom Wi-Fi portal
Unlike other airlines, which use an out-of-the-box portal product for their inflight Wi-Fi service, we developed our own United Wi-Fi user interface for our customers who connect on board. Our custom portal offers flight information, destination weather reports and free access to united.com, in addition to the ability to purchase access to the United Wi-Fi service. For answers to your questions about United Wi-Fi, view our FAQ page.
As we mentioned earlier, the process of adding satellite Wi-Fi to our planes is a time-consuming and complex one. Here’s what happens over our nine-day installation process as we move from blueprint to outfitted plane.
Day 1: Pre-build outside the aircraft and inside preparations begin: we assemble access platforms, and inventory installation parts and separate them from the pre-built kits to install them in the plane.
Day 2: We continue with the pre-build process, with a focus on wiring of bundles: taking groups of wires that will be run together, combining them into harness, cutting the necessary length outside the aircraft, and then taking the final length into the plane to run from point to point. We build the GCS rack – which is the platform for the two boxes and fan that represent the “brains” of the system – outside the plane before we mount it inside.
Days 3 and 4: The intricate process of wiring into the avionics compartment begins, and we start drilling on the radome, both inside and out. We begin modifications to the antenna power box mounting and start drilling and mounting sheet metal components in cabin interiors and the wiring in the fuselage.
Day 4: Installation in the cargo compartment commences; the cargo compartment contains the GCS rack.
Day 5: Sheet metal assembly begins in the galley and video-storage compartment. A power panel in the galley contains all the circuit breakers used to power and depower both the entire system and the individual components. The video stowage compartment contains the crew panel to monitor the system and the switchbox to allow loading of software from the cabin as well as control over the system.
Days 6 and 7: We finalize the antenna and radome installation.
Day 8: We check the airplane’s electrical integrity. This process, known as the “ring out,” involves sending electrical power through the wires, one at a time, to ensure the signal transmits across the same wire on the other end and to confirm that all wires are hooked up properly.
Day 9: We power on all the electrical components of the airplane and implement the software installation. After the software is loaded, we take the plane outside for an operational check of the system, connecting to the satellite and towing the plane around our maintenance area to ensure it tracks the satellite successfully. We also perform operational checks of all systems on the plane.
At the time of this article, United has installed satellite-based Wi-Fi on 13 Boeing 747s, 36 Airbus 319s and 21 A320s. We expect to complete this project by the end of 2015. Stay up to date on our satellite Wi-Fi progress.