Advice for upgrading an aircraft with Wi-Fi

Curiosity optimizes in-flight connectivity

When you’re at a coffee shop sipping a latte and reading through emails on your laptop, tablet or smartphone, you’re usually not wondering how your email is getting to or from your device. You just expect it to work—and work fast.

Onboard your aircraft, you and your passengers want the same convenience. But, making the proper choices to equip your aircraft with in-flight connectivity can quickly feel like it requires a degree in electrical engineering. It can seem complex, but it isn’t.

We’ve put together a list of questions to ask of yourself and the people who fly regularly on your aircraft. This brief connectivity audit will enable you to better discuss your requirements with the facility that installs your upgraded avionics. Having these answers will help you choose the right equipment to suit your needs.

Why do you want to connect?
Do you have many passengers with multiple devices who want the same connectivity they enjoy at the office? Do you have family members who like to stream movies, listen to music or check out YouTube? Will Skype or video conferencing be critical? Or, is a quick check of email every hour all that’s required? Make sure you know who wants to be connected, how many devices may be connected in the aircraft at one time, what they want their devices to do and what connectivity speeds would be acceptable.

“It is important to note,” explained Don Milum, Director of Avionics Sales for Hawker Beechcraft Services, “that Wi-Fi only means wireless technology. And there are many products operating on various networks that can be installed wirelessly in an aircraft. No one wants an operator, CEO or family member to be disappointed with their internet experience after investing in Wi-Fi thinking they could stream video and music, only to find they can’t.”

How do you want to connect?
Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) seems the obvious answer. But, you may not want the extra expense if you fly with passengers who don’t mind connecting an Ethernet cable to their laptop. Or, if you’re looking to wade into in-flight connectivity without the certification expense, a hard-wired connection could be the place to start. You can always upgrade to Wi-Fi later.

What kind of plan will be required?
Voice, data, high-speed/broadband, high usage or low, national or global coverage, monthly fee or pay-as-you-go are some of your options. Part of the in-flight connectivity discussion is akin to setting up an office or home system and part is like buying a mobile phone. With all of the options, there’s very likely a plan that’s right for you. The more clear you are on where your aircraft is flying, how many users/devices will be connected on a typical flight, and what they will be doing on the internet, the easier you can find a plan the suits you best.

Who is the best choice for a Wi-Fi installation?
As in-flight connectivity moves from an optional feature to an addition to your aircraft’s pseudo-minimum equipment list, more people are choosing to install the technology. The key to finding the right installer lies in the Supplemental Type Certificate (STC). The FAA requires that wireless technology installations be performed in accordance with a proven and tested STC. While many dealers have access to purchase one-time use rights of third-party STCs, it’s a good idea to work directly with the original STC holder instead.

“An original STC holder has taken the time to perform the necessary engineering and EFI testing required to assure that your wireless equipment meets all required regulatory compliance items.”

— Don Milum, avionics sales manager for Hawker Beechcraft Services


Milum noted, “An original STC holder has taken the time to perform the necessary engineering and EFI testing required to assure that your wireless equipment meets all required regulatory compliance items. And, since electronics and software are constantly changing, the original STC holder is the one to keep their customers’ equipment up to date with STC amendments and revisions. Dig deeply regarding the STC particulars and STC holder prior to making your purchase.”

How do I find the best deal?
Contact a minimum of three avionics installation facilities for a formal installation proposal. It’s safe to assume you’ll need to ask questions to ensure the proposals you receive are fair comparisons and offer the best solutions. Here are a few:

Is the estimate detailed or vague? Are the costs from service providers clear? Are the terms and conditions clearly defined and acceptable? Does the dealer provide service and support after the sale? Is everything you asked for included, or are you vulnerable to be up-sold later?

Ask for references from operators who have had similar installations who can attest to the equipment operation and dealer installation performance. Ask what they like, what they don’t like, what surprised them, and if they would have done anything differently.

Installation downtime
Get the details, and make sure the downtime guarantees you receive are realistic. A short timeframe can mean technicians know what they’re doing and can schedule work efficiently. However, it can also mean the installer is providing false hope with a shorter-than-normal downtime in an effort to win your business.

Number of similar installations
The higher the better. Service centers, especially those owned by the manufacturer, will typically win out here. Higher volumes mean better pricing and more efficient installations. It could be the best value overall, especially because the final bill may be lower than you expect. They’ll put the best STCs, the most experience, the benefits of volume pricing and competitive downtimes to work for you.

Remember: all things eventually need to be tweaked. What are the warranty terms? Will you have to come back to a specific shop to get service if needed? Or, does the center or dealer have a network of locations where you typically fly that are available to you?

Bill Richmond, a director of maintenance for more than 36 years, said installing wireless connectivity is more than worth it for the fleet he keeps running. “Everybody requests Wi-Fi as soon as they get on the airplane. They want to make sure they can keep working on their computers—maybe doing some last-minute things before a client meeting.”

Richmond added that his flight crews’ productivity increased as well for planning, weather reporting and service. “We can communicate back and forth on maintenance issues. It’s easier than on the phone.”