July 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 3 
Special Features

A hands-on revolution

Connexion by Boeing’s achievements came from hard—and smart—work


A hands-on revolutionA revolution in the way airline passengers work, communicate, entertain themselves and relax in flight is spreading from the realm of test jets and executive aircraft into commercial aviation. This airborne system-which allows passengers to use the Internet or virtual private networks just as they would on the ground-is a tribute to the work of engineers at Connexion by Boeing and throughout the Boeing enterprise, and at suppliers and airlines.

Lufthansa German Airlines successfully introduced its FlyNet service powered by Connexion by Boeing on May 17 aboard Flight 452 from Munich to Los Angeles. Mark Nelson, a flight-test engineer for Connexion by Boeing, sent this email from the aircraft about 90 minutes after takeoff:

"There are pounding keyboards all around me and everyone is very excited. I am grateful for this opportunity to be part of aviation history, and after seeing all the smiling faces onboard, I am convinced that it was worth it. Congratulations to all who made this flight possible; please take a bow and breathe a sigh of relief. As humbly as possible, let me finally say: Joy!"

Lufthansa gradually will deploy its service across its entire long-range fleet. Other airlines scheduled to begin installing the system during the next year are Singapore Airlines, ANA (All Nippon Airways), JAL (Japan Airlines), SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System) and China Airlines. Korean Air also has announced its intent to install the system on its aircraft. Besides providing new conveniences for passengers, Connexion by Boeing also will allow airlines to communicate operational data in real time, saving maintenance costs by not having to park an aircraft to plug in diagnostic equipment.


As Nelson noted in his e-mail, the creation of the Connexion by Boeing system presented some interesting engineering challenges. Phased-array antennas originally developed by Boeing helped prove the concept of high-speed, real-time connectivity, but to serve long-range airline routes that often cross polar regions, a new antenna was needed. Airlines also expressed their desire to move toward a wireless cabin environment in order to reduce complexity and weight. Consequently, the system now includes mechanical-reflector antennas developed by Mitsubishi Electric Company and wireless networks with access points that enable the use of any industry-standard WiFi device.

"We had to develop a truly global communication system," said Darrin Luther, manager of satellite communications development for Connexion. "We had to design, produce and gain Federal Aviation Administration certification for a new antenna subsystem and wireless cabin management system in record time. While doing that, we also had to develop twoway satellite communication systems for aircraft and ground stations, and develop a new type of spread-spectrum modem that required our team to write 450,000 lines of software code within 18 months. These were record accomplishments. They were the result of our team's dedication, the selection of firstrate suppliers, and using Working Together principles and the best Boeing practices."

In part because of post-Sept. 11 concerns, features that executive-jet customers previously thought of as nice-to-have became elevated to must-have. One such feature was video teleconferencing. In the first half of 2002, satellite communications and digital networks engineers Gordon Letney, Brian McDonough and Jay Moore took on dual roles as on-air talent. Seated aboard Connexion One, the Connexion by Boeing test aircraft, or in laboratories in Kent, Wash., and Seattle, their faces were visible on the screen as they demonstrated how Connexion by Boeing can power two-way video teleconferencing. Their boss, System Development Director Ed Laase, caused a stir at Boeing leadership and investor conferences the same year. He spoke in real time with his boss, Connexion President Scott Carson, as Laase flew in Connexion One at an altitude of 37,000 feet, while Carson was on the ground, with conference rooms full of onlookers.

The following year, information technology development engineers such as Shelbun Cheng, Mark Oser, Paul Gause, Dean Miller and Jim Handy took video applications a step further. Working with colleagues at Boeing Air Traffic Management, the engineers showed federal air marshals how to do the same thing: talk and be seen talking on the ground, this time with handheld devices. They were able to communicate wirelessly using such devices to send voice, video, pictures and text. The capability first demonstrated aboard Connexion One later was repeated in ground-based demonstrations for U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and for members of Congress. Technology development engineers Dan Poblete, Paul Berglund, and Richard Petrisevac successfully demonstrated a crew panic alarm coupled with real-time, remote-camera monitoring of cargo areas and passenger cabins, and the real-time transfer of flight data and cockpit voice information from the air to ground-based monitoring stations.

A hands-on revolutionA GOOD CONNEXION

On Feb. 15, 2004, two more engineers showed how a private- voice service telephone could be used by an airliner's cabin crew to call colleagues at an airline's ground control center if needed. At 6:40 a.m. in Seattle, voice services engineer Dave Bogart received a call from his flight-test colleague, Fred Gibbs, who was aboard Connexion One in flight over Lemwerder, Germany. A satellite ground station in Leuk, Switzerland, fed the call to Bogart in Seattle with signal quality comparable to that of a cellular telephone. The ability of a flight crew to place such calls to the ground is considered an important customer-care feature of the Connexion by Boeing system.

But a text conversation between engineers, two days later, illustrated the promise of the basic Connexion service: the ability to communicate in real-time via e-mail between air and ground, and thus make easier the business of aviation.

Connexion One was en route from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Lemwerder. Michael O'Toole, a senior field representative on the ground, sent a message to Mark Zenor, a systems test engineer aboard the aircraft: "The ground crew is expecting you at 2 p.m. local. ... Is this correct? . I have arranged for a ground power unit. We will also meet you; there is no food on site but we can arrange food and drink for your next leg."

They also swapped information about fuel and power.

O'Toole later said the exchange of e-mails turned an expected stop of three hours' duration into only one hour, 15 minutes. That's just the kind of operational results airlines are looking for as Connexion by Boeing takes flight.


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