Craig Foster of Valour Consultancy discusses the shifting business jet connectivity landscape
Why do you think we are seeing various new entrants in the business aviation connectivity market?
Historically, provision of wholesale cabin connectivity services for VIP and business aircraft has been dominated by four companies: Gogo, Viasat, Inmarsat and Iridium. But over the last couple of years, a clutch of new entrants has emerged.
Margins in business aviation relative to air transport are much higher and while there is a degree of price sensitivity around upfront equipment costs and ongoing airtime fees, there is a willingness to pay for a good quality and reliable connectivity experience. Indeed, during the course of the research for Valour Consultancy’s soon-to-publish study on the adoption of connectivity in this market, a common theme among interviewees was that non-functioning cabin connectivity is often cause to keep an aircraft on the ground. However, this level of heightened expectation could make or break the prospects of those less familiar with having to provide a white-glove service.
What do these new entrants need to bear in mind?
Simply put, business aviation is a very high touch market and connectivity providers need to cater to the specific demands of those operating no more than a handful of aircraft. A connectivity service needs to tie into the overall theme of making each aircraft or fleet of aircraft unique. Commercial aviation, on the other hand, is a higher-volume market where low-margin off-the-shelf products (premium cabin seats aside) are the order of the day. And as far as connectivity business models are concerned, airlines and their service providers have frankly struggled for years to make the paid-for approach work. For this reason, the likes of Intelsat and SES have been wise to partner with industry stalwarts like Satcom Direct and Collins Aerospace.
Is there room for all new entrants to find success?
Though it’s impossible to say who will thrive and who might fall by the wayside in the battle for supremacy, it’s fair to say that we can most probably expect some level of consolidation in the market in the mid- to longer-term. Only a limited number of business aircraft are viable candidates for many of the services being proposed. For fuselage-mount solutions, there are around 500 bizliners that are large enough to accommodate big, bulky radomes. There are currently circa 6,500 large-cabin jets and these – plus an extra 2,500 that are set to be added to the fleet over the next 10 years – will be the prime target given that most can take a bullet-like tail radome but are not yet fitted with high-bandwidth Ku- or Ka-band connectivity. Beyond this, most of the remaining 16,000 super-midsize, midsize, light and very light business jets and a similar number of turboprops are only really suited to much less invasive ATG and L-band terminals.
What technological developments could prove pivotal?
A game changer will be the maturity of flat-panel antenna technology, which has the potential to open up the total addressable market for high-capacity satellite-based connectivity to much smaller airframes. A whole host of companies are currently working on solutions that aim to do just this, but industry consensus is that we’re still several years away from market-ready products that overcome current challenges around power consumption, heat dissipation and cost. That being said, there will always be a significant chunk of smaller aircraft that never leave CONUS or Europe and are arguably most suited to an ATG solution. In this regard, the bases look well covered by Gogo, SmartSky and Inmarsat, when it approves the European Aviation Network for business aviation.
What advice would you give to players in this field?
With all this in mind, it seems like a stretch to imagine that the business aviation market can support so many different solutions. Those with ambitions to stay relevant in the long term need to ensure that they are best-in-class and not pursue an un-winnable race to the bottom on price, especially if it comes at the expense of a good-quality experience. Anything less simply won’t be tolerated. Companies that bear this in mind will surely reap the rewards – especially those with ambitions in the Ku- and Ka-band segments. The number of aircraft equipped with these technologies is forecast to rise from some 1,200 aircraft today, to almost 9,000 by the end of 2029 – growth that far outstrips the other categories.
The competitive environment, market trends and the likely future adoption of connectivity in this space is explored in great depth in Valour Consultancy’s forthcoming report entitled The Market for IFEC and CMS Systems on VVIP and Business Aircraft, due to publish in the first quarter of 2020.
Craig Foster is a senior consultant and co-founder of Valour Consultancy
Top image: ©denisismagilov – stock.adobe.com