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Adios, turbulence. Pilots have a new way to outfox you

Airplanes with better Wi-Fi aren’t just good for passengers -- they help pilots avoid troublesome turbulence too.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

What kind of flier are you? I like the window seat.

Once I'm sitting on a plane with my seatbelt fastened, I rarely get up again. This is mostly because I'm usually asleep before the plane even reaches the runway. But it's also because when turbulence inevitably hits, it's much better to be already seated and plugged in than pottering about getting in the way of the trolley.

But turbulence may become a thing of the past if Honeywell gets its way. Best known for making smart home products, Honeywell also works in avionics, and it's showing off its new JetWave system for faster in-flight Wi-Fi and its vision for the connected aircraft.

While faster Wi-Fi means better video streaming and FaceTime chats for passengers, it could also be beneficial to pilots, who now have reliable connectivity and access to real-time weather data. That connection also means data about the condition of the plane can be beamed ahead to maintenance crews on the ground. The result could be fewer delays, faster turnaround times and a smoother flight for you with pilots able to chart a smarter course around trouble spots.

Honeywell predicts that by 2025, there will be 25,000 Wi-Fi-connected planes in the world. It's already upgrading 20 airlines with its JetWave technology, including planes belonging to Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways. It boasts a maximum speed of 50 megabits per second, although it's more realistically around 30Mbps, or triple the speed of your standard home broadband connection. 

The Honeywell-customized Boeing 757 boasts faster Wi-Fi because of an antenna mounted to the top of the aircraft, allowing it to grab signals from satellites above. It's less clumsy than the traditional system in which planes grab cellular signals from towers on the ground.

Honeywell, is the upstart in this game. GoGo, the leader in providing in-flight Wi-Fi service, also has a next-generation satellite system, called 2Ku, that it says outperforms all other services in the market. Other companies building their own high-speed satellite-based networks include Panasonic and Viasat. 

When the Honeywell plane landed in London, I went on board to see how it would result in a less stomach-churning flight.

Flying smooth

Almost as soon as the "fasten seatbelt" signs turned off, I rushed to the jump seat in the cockpit, watching the pilots over their shoulders. They were using new GoDirect in-flight apps created by Honeywell, which show the flight plan they've created with multiple overlays.

With clear indications of where they'll find turbulence using crowdsourced and up-to-date weather reports, they were able to make route modifications in a split second. Their flight plans updated in real time to reflect the changes.


Honeywell's app allows pilots to update the flight plan in real time.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Spotting turbulence is an inexact science, which explains why so many of us experience it. A pilot usually creates a flight plan several hours ahead of takeoff, or even the night before, using existing weather reports,which include some kind of turbulence forecast.

This method has its limitations.

"Once you take off, it's old news, it's out of date already," said Nate Turner, a private pilot, flying teacher and product manager at Honeywell.

Pilots will talk to air traffic control to see if there's information from other pilots, and turbulence reports are shared by word of mouth, but it's not the most efficient system, said Turner. In the cockpit, there's a radar that can see for hundreds of miles ahead, but this detects precipitation and clouds without giving any real indication of whether you'd encounter any instability. Also, once the flight plan is set, it's usually tricky to make a change.

Turner and his private passengers have already experienced the benefits of the Honeywell system.

"I was flying up to Idaho a few weeks ago, and I was able to see exactly where the turbulence was going to be," he said. "I requested an altitude higher than that, and right away I got out of the turbulence and it was clear sailing going ahead."

The app also condenses existing charts and information into 3D approach charts, which allows the pilot to visualize the landing, which is especially useful at tricky or unfamiliar airports.

The future is on the way, without delay

Another benefit of all this connectivity is, of course, data. With up to 25,000 sensors on board, a plane can generate hundreds of terabytes of information over the course of each flight.

Getting that information to the ground crew at the destination ahead of time means they'll know exactly what needs taking care of when a plane lands, reducing delays in the process. If you're a frequent flyer, that's music to your ears.


Wi-Fi enables a better experience for passengers and pilots.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Honeywell is also using this connectivity to introduce real-time tracking, although it faces a lot of competition. It has started trials with United Airlines in the US to stream black box data straight to the cloud. In the future, this will have the potential to help avoid situations such as the inability to locate Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which went missing in March 2014 and was never recovered.

I enjoyed a smooth flight around the east coast of England, but it turns out that no matter how good the turbulence-predicting mechanisms are, there's no accounting for low-lying British clouds. When our flight was making its final descent into London Stansted Airport, the plane started bobbing about.

The flight of the future is promising, but it's clear there will be some bumps along the way.

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