Boeing Frontiers
August 2002 
Volume 01, Issue 04 
Top Stories Inside Quick Takes Site Tools
Connexion by Boeing

Bringing broadband to air travel

Connexion by Boeing and customers work together to optimize new service


The inventor of the Flushable Vehicle Spittoon (U.S. Patent 4989275) brought an innovative technological solution to a market consisting of drivers who chew tobacco. But there's a reason your car didn't come equipped with one: Innovators don't get a vote when it comes to determining value; only customers get to cast ballots. That's why technological innovation is a risky business.

So if you're an enterprise such as Connexion by Boeing, investing a lot of company resources into bringing a new technological solution to the marketplace, minimizing risk is essential. That's why Connexion by Boeing adopted the same approach as that pioneered during the development of the Boeing 777—actively engaging prospective customers in the design, development and deployment of a large-scale, complex system that will bring broadband services to air travel.

Fifteen leading airlines from four continents have participated actively in Connexion Working Together—a series of week-long intensive conferences in which approaches to everything from installation and maintenance to applications and customer care were defined, refined, reviewed and prioritized.

"These discussions have been of enormous importance in helping us prepare a 'service-ready, on-time-every-time' system," said Sean Schwinn, director of Commercial Services for Connexion by Boeing. "No one knows the requirements of passengers, flight attendants, pilots and mechanics better than the airlines that fly the planes. Airlines also know the shortcomings of previous-generation narrowband links and in-flight entertainment systems. Their knowledge of what didn't work—and of what they want in a system that will work—can help us avoid a lot of mistakes and false starts."

"Any time you can predetermine value—as defined by the customers—you leap light years ahead of competitors who wait until service entry to find out if their solutions are what customers really want," said Sales Director Stan Deal. "Connexion Working Together has been and remains a powerful tool for delivering the preferred solution to the marketplace. And it does so while allowing us to conserve our resources, because it steers us from approaches that customers don't consider valuable.

"Enthusiasm for what we're doing—and how we're doing it—has increased exponentially from session to session," Deal said. "Airlines now have a better appreciation for the power of airborne broadband connectivity to drive multiple value streams."

One example: In May, while participants engaged in discussions at Connexion Working Together #3 in California, Connexion by Boeing President Scott Carson was addressing the financial community at Boeing's annual investors conference in St. Louis. Although there clearly was no one else on the stage with him, Carson began to introduce System Development Director Ed Laase. Suddenly plasma screens on either side of the room lit up, revealing Laase aboard the Connexion One research plane as it sped through the skies 35,000 feet above the Grand Canyon in the United States, making history with the world's first public broadband videoconference linking a commercial jetliner and participants on the ground.

Word of the air-to-ground conference quickly spread at Connexion Working Together. Some initially deemed it a curiosity, of potential interest to executive jet operators or governments. But discussion quickly shifted to potential airline applications.

Captains, for example, who typically lack medical degrees, have the responsibility for determining whether a passenger's ailment constitutes a medical emergency requiring an unscheduled landing at an alternate airport. Such diversions can cost an airline $30 million or more annually. With a videoconference capability—coupled with available telemedicine technology to track vital signs—a doctor on the ground can visually examine and question the patient, monitor heart rate and blood pressure, and diagnose those chest pains as either a heart attack (requiring a flight diversion) or simple heartburn, which would permit the flight to continue to its intended destination. Elimination of unnecessary diversions could save an airline millions.

Airlines also could save millions by using Connexion's "big pipes"—a 20-megabit data stream onto the plane, a 1-megabit stream off—to improve operational efficiency. Using Connexion to transmit data in onboard computer systems monitoring the performance of every system on the airplane means the right parts and tools and mechanics can be waiting for the plane when it pulls up at the gate, reducing delays and cancellations.

Broadband also will permit airlines to enhance customer service. During a demonstration flight aboard Connexion One in early 2002, Alaska Airlines helped a passenger check in for a subsequent flight through its Web site, then printed out the boarding pass at 35,000 feet.

With Connexion's broadband approach, an airline could determine which passengers on a flight that took off late are likely to miss their connecting flights at the destination airport, rebook them on alternative flights and print out new boarding passes on the plane. Passengers in a similar situation on a competing airline without such connectivity would have to wait until landing, making Connexion a powerful magnet for attracting and retaining business travelers, enhancing reputation, building brand and boosting revenues.

The first, formal phase of Connexion Working Together culminated in May, but Deal said the process never really ends. "Defining and delivering value is an ongoing process. Through Connexion Working Together, we have a better understanding of the technological approaches that deliver real value—and the airlines have a better appreciation for the versatility of Connexion by Boeing's solution to provide the solutions that they and their customers need."


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