The last place I expect to be able to make a video call is at 20,000 feet.
That's the altitude I'm at when I FaceTime Brian Tong in Los Angeles. Video calling is usually a no-go when you're on a plane because, social etiquette aside, the Wi-Fi generally sucks.
But on a customized Boeing 757, satellite connectivity means I can FaceTime, Netflix, YouTube and basically download the entire internet to my heart's content. This 757 is a test plane equipped with Honeywell's JetWave hardware. JetWave is designed to supply faster Wi-Fi for passengers and predictive analytics for pilots.
Here's what I learned from a one-hour flight on the test plane.
How does satellite internet differ from other inflight Wi-Fi systems?
Many US domestic flights use an air-to-ground system. Antennas on the base of the plane get a signal from cell towers on the ground. As the plane travels between coverage areas, dropouts can occur and this system generally isn't used for international flights.
The Honeywell test plane has an antenna at the top of the aircraft that communicates with satellites. But on commercial aircraft, it would typically be installed as a tail-mounted antenna. A dual receiver in the modem lets users stay connected as the plane moves from one satellite beam to another. The second receiver locks on to the new beam and seamlessly 'hands off' from the previous one, so in theory, it means fewer dropouts.
Satellite-based systems allow you to get internet over water, which is ideal for international flights.
Airlines such as JetBlue and Virgin America offer satellite internet using ViaSat's system. Southwest Airlines uses Panasonic and Global Eagle Entertainment's services. Honeywell's JetWave system receives signals from Inmarsat's satellite network.
Is it really that fast?
Yes and no. A Honeywell engineer told me that the theoretical maximum bandwidth onboard is 50Mbps. But more realistically you're getting 30Mbps and that could drop when more people jump on the network. The upload speed is also nowhere near the download speed, but it was enough to sustain a FaceTime call without too much difficulty.
Airlines will ultimately have control over how much bandwidth to allocate to users so your mileage may vary. But even when multiple users hopped on to the connection on the test flight, I could still watch two videos simultaneously without too much of that dreaded buffering.
Will this be on my next flight?
Possibly. Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways are all deploying this technology across some of their fleets. It takes three days to retrofit existing aircraft with the technology, though some airlines are ordering planes off the line with the hardware installed.
Honeywell wouldn't say exactly which US airlines were rolling out the technology, but gave a timeframe of 12 to 18 months for consumers to see it made available on US-based airlines.
Can pilots watch Netflix too?
Maybe. But the connection is used for many different purposes than just giving you faster internet. The plane's radar can collect data from weather radar systems on other planes and determine if there's turbulence up ahead. This reduces the need for pilots to radio ahead to other planes or air traffic control for weather updates.
Pilots can also access apps that determine a more efficient flight path based on the plane's collected data, which could potentially save on fuel costs.
According to Honeywell, by knowing exactly what is needed and where the plane is in real-time, the system can help avoid unplanned events.
For instance, the plane's brake system can be turned into a 'connected brake' using the Wi-Fi system. As it starts to wear down, aircraft maintenance personnel will be notified so they can swap it out at a convenient time, rather than relying on manual visual inspections that might result in unplanned maintenance. So that should hopefully mean fewer last-minute delays for you.