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Photo: Jonas Malmström

Aviation

This is how the WiFi onboard SAS' flights is installed

More SAS travelers than ever are enjoying WiFi onboard. But to outfit the entire short haul fleet takes time, for obvious reasons.

What are your reference points for the internet? Well, the same as if you were at home, or at work. It’s 4G and soon 5G, obviously. Then suddenly, you’re onboard an aircraft trying to reach and maintain the kind of network you’re used to, but at a speed of 850kmph and an altitude of around 40,000 feet. It goes without saying that that’s an incredibly tough ask.

Aviation engineer John Rune Skjeie has been installing WiFi in cabins since SAS’ first WiFi solution, almost nine years ago. He’s now busy fitting the new network solution being installed on SAS aircraft. The components are basically the same, but the new generation operates at a higher bandwidth and at a higher satellite frequency, meaning you can run much larger volumes of data over the satellite link. In other words, you should be able to upload a video to your Instagram account while simultaneously streaming a TV series without a problem.

Photo: Jonas Malmström“When we started with this system, we were a bit cautious. But I don’t think anyone experiences problems with bandwidth onboard these days,” says Skjeie.

In front of us, engineers have started work on the latest aircraft in the line. The majority of the 25 installed A320neos have been done in Oslo. As a rule, the aircraft arrive at the workshop at Gardermoen Airport on a Sunday evening to have their fuselage jacked up over the course of a night. This is where the antenna that’s in contact with the satellite is installed. The cover is mounted on the outside and looks a bit like a ski roof box.

“The antenna rotates as it should always point towards the satellite while the aircraft is flying – a bit like a compass needle. The satellite is North as it were,” says Production Line Manager, Kjetil Johansen.

Work begins on a Monday evening and by Wednesday, the final fine-tuning is completed.

“We estimate it takes five working days per aircraft, which adds up to around 850 working hours,” says Johansen.

But if anything takes time, it’s the new gadgets and widgets that must be installed in an aircraft, according to Skjeie.

“It takes longer in the aviation industry compared to other sectors because of the aircraft components. Testing and certification is a pretty extensive process to get a system approved for use onboard,” he says. “It’s also about the quality of the materials used. You can’t exactly install any cheap and solution you see on offer online.

“Here, everything is tested to the max, not least when it comes to security, to ensure it’s fully up to standard and that you can install it onboard,” says the engineer.

Once the components are approved as meeting flight standards, the next process is to install the system.

“And you can see what that entails,” says Skjeie, nodding toward the aircraft in the hangar.

“The process is nothing like when an electrician comes to your home, runs a cable along the wall and connects a socket. Here, we’ve got to go right into the wheel well of the aircraft to access places you don’t often see.”

Aviation engineer John Rune Skjele has been installing WiFi in SAS' cabins for almost nine years

Development in the aviation industry has started to move far more rapidly as well and Skjeie is confident that the SAS network should be totally free from blind spots when the second ViaSat-3 satellite, aimed at Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), will provide coverage across SAS routes, including the North Sea.

“We’re using a satellite over Europe that was never intended for aviation use,” he says.

This is why there’s no coverage when an aircraft flies over large expanses of water.  This situation will be remedied when the new satellite is launched.

Getting a satellite up into orbit is no straightforward task, though.

“The timelines from satellite planning to launch have declined over the years. For Viasat, the cycle range is typically 3-5 years, depending on the satellite design, local and regional regulatory aspects, launch manifest availability, among other factors,” says Skjeie.

Even before the next Viasat satellite is launched, however, SAS flights have internet access with a bandwidth similar to what you have at home.

“Previously, there was a limit of 10,000 feet to use internet onboard,” says Skjeie, “But when it works as well as it can, you can surf and stream high resolution TV series as soon as the cabin doors are closed. Totally problem-free.”

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