MIAMI — Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE) has what is inarguably the world’s coolest and most beautiful WiFi testbed aircraft, in the form of “Albatross One” — a 1951 Grumman Albatross sea plane. Everywhere it goes, it makes people talk and wonder what it’s all about. And in some cases, people even call 9-1-1 out of concern.
That’s exactly what happened last month in Portland, Oregon, during the annual Airline Passenger Experience Expo. GEE performed demonstration test flights with media and potential airline customers on board throughout the event, while making takeoffs and landings on the Willamette River, near downtown Portland. GEE shared that people along the river had even called emergency services, with concerns about an aircraft that had landed in the water, thinking it was an emergency.
During APEX, AirwaysNews sat down with GEE Chief Technology Officer Aditya Chatterjee, who shared that the company currently has its Ku-band antennas installed on nearly 700 aircraft — many of which are in the Southwest Airlines fleet. Global Eagle also has a new 3-axis Ku antenna, called Global AeroConnect. Chatterjee said, “You want to design [the new antenna] in a way that it operates in more spaces around the globe than your current antenna.” He said the new antenna will have the ability to operate anywhere, at speeds of up to 200 megabits per second. The speeds are selected by the airlines, of course. The new antenna is capable of being installed on existing GEE-equipped aircraft within only four hours. Global AeroConnect flight tests will be carried out this year, with rollout to customers expected to begin in 2016. In addition to being installed on current Southwest planes, as needed, it will also be line-fit to the 737 MAX, including the first to be delivered to Southwest, in 2017.
Chatterjee also shared that Southwest’s current service through Global Eagle is about to have its bandwidth doubled, by activating more transponders of the satellite. This will occur before the end of October. GEE’s land-based server is also being upgraded from a 600 Gigabyte server to a 4.8 Terabyte server. A new North American satellite with spot beam technology is scheduled to be launched in 2017, by GEE partner SES. Being dedicated to North America, Southwest passengers will benefit from that launch as well, though SES also provides satellite bandwidth to Panasonic and Thales customers. Additional upgrades to existing onboard modems and wireless access points are also available, although Global AeroConnect is designed to be backward-compatible with all existing hardware.
During our demo flight, we taxied north, under the Broadway and Fremont bridges before taking to the air. A few minutes later, we had crossed the border into Washington State. Now cruising over the Columbia River northbound, we performed one touch-and-go on the Columbia heading back toward Portland. The scenery was beautiful, as we passed over boats and ships of all sizes, along with trees in a myriad of autumn colors.
The GEE Albatross, registered N44HQ was purchased in 2008, and formerly flown by the inflight WiFi company, Row44, provider of satellite internet to Icelandair, Norwegian, and Southwest Airlines. The Albatross was selected because the arch of its upper fuselage is nearly identical to that of the Boeing 737. It also doesn’t hurt that the Albatross is a nostalgic and attention-grabbing showpiece. Row44 was acquired by GEE in 2013. The SA-16 Albatross was introduced in 1949 to the U.S. Air Force as a search and rescue aircraft, and was used extensively in the Korean and Vietnam wars, though its last flight under USAF service was in 1973. That aircraft is now displayed in Ohio, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The U.S. Navy retired the Albatross in 1976, followed by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1983. Commercially, Albatrosses have served with Pan American Airways, Continental, and Chalk’s International Airways.