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Visiting Lufthansa Technik Malta: How to Install Inflight Wi-Fi

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Visiting Lufthansa Technik Malta: How to Install Inflight Wi-Fi

Visiting Lufthansa Technik Malta: How to Install Inflight Wi-Fi
March 20
11:14 2017

Up to date, 57 Lufthansa narrow-body A320 family aircraft have been equipped with antennas that give passengers the possibility to be linked to the world below while cruising at 35,000 feet across Europe.

To the average US passenger, this might be a small number of aircraft. But in Europe, it’s not.

Lufthansa Technik's Line Maintenance Hangar in Frankfurt

Lufthansa Technik’s Line Maintenance Hangar in Frankfurt

European airlines, in fact, have lagged behind in offering its passengers in-flight connectivity. Unlike US airlines—which have 85% of its entire existing fleet ‘connected’—European carriers have just begun to retrofit their airliners with next-generation systems that will help them catch the worldwide need for connectivity. And Lufthansa Technik is behind this gargantuan task.

Linking all of Lufthansa’s narrow-body airliners with the world is possible thanks to the work of hundreds of engineers and mechanics based at the Lufthansa Technik facility in the island of Malta, located southwest of the Italian coast.

At this location, heavy maintenance (C and D checks) is offered to hundreds of customers from around the globe, ranging from small narrow-body aircraft to large long-haul airliners.

But what’s truly changing the landscape of in-flight entertainment and passenger experience is the installation of the GX hardware that links three satellites to a tiny antenna that sits on top of the fuselage, opening the world of connectivity to each and every passenger onboard a Lufthansa intra-European flight.

The JetWave GX System

Furnished by Honeywell, the JetWave GX system operates on Inmarsat’s Aviation Global Network, linking each aircraft with any of the three satellites that cover the entire globe, excluding the polar regions.

Markus Motschenbacher, CEO of Lufthansa Technik Malta, told Airways that soon “all narrow-body aircraft on Lufthansa’s fleet will be connected.” According to him, Lufthansa Technik Malta can retrofit about 20 aircraft per month and expects to deliver the 100th connected airplane before the year’s end.

A Lufthansa Airbus A321 undergoing the installation of the GX System

A Lufthansa Airbus A321 undergoes the installation of the GX System

This is not an easy task. Lufthansa and its subsidiary, Lufthansa Technik, need to coordinate the downtime for the heavily used narrow body fleet. “We have revised the schedule over 177 times,” said Lukas Bucher, Head of Connectivity Program. “These aircraft are so heavily used that finding the right time to bring them to Malta, keep them on the ground until the retrofit is finished, and send them back to the network takes a lot of coordination.”

But the result is stellar. The Inmarsat-fed system works well, and fast.

Technical Numbers

“In an Airbus A321, we need several routers/antennas inside the cabin,” explained Nils Beyer, a design engineer in charge of aircraft modifications at Lufthansa Technik. “Each one of these routers feeds an approximate of 50 passengers. A fully-loaded A321 needs at least four.”

Beyer carefully explained how the installation process demands the removal of a few overhead bins and roof panels. “All the cables that go from the rear fuselage antenna to the antenna’s power feeder [KANDU], and to the modem [Bin Box], are spread out behind these panels so that passengers won’t be able to see them.”

But the other reason passengers need to stay away from these parts is because the KANDU heats up to 60 degrees Celcius when turned on, he explained.

“The satellite is located over 30,000km above the aircraft. The power needed for the antenna to reach the satellite is tremendous!” explained Bucher.

“Inmarsat offers three Ka-band High Throughput Satellites in orbit, equipped to provide GX Aviation coverage around the world,” Beyer said. “Each satellite is capable of carrying 89 spot beams with up to 50mbps each. The dual receiver allows the aircraft’s antenna to transition between beams when needed.”

What this means is that the aircraft-mounted antenna can be linked to two different beams at the same time. “The antenna communicates with the first beam as it transmits data. If the system detects that it’s time to switch to a new beam, the antenna does it automatically. The antenna moves rapidly to intercept the satellite’s signal at a precision of one degree angle.”

The expensive 82.6-lbs antenna is protected from the outside with a fiberglass, super light radome that’s partially covered with lightning diverters, furnished by WXGuard, a company that specializes in creating anti-lightning technology for wind turbine blades and aircraft radomes. The Honeywell antenna is built to withstand temperatures as low as -60 degrees Celsius.

Nils Beyer poses next to the Radome that will be installed on top of an Airbus A321 to cover the JetWave Antenna

Nils Beyer poses next to the Radome that will be installed on top of an Airbus A321 to cover the JetWave Antenna

Unlike in the US, Lufthansa keeps its system online until the aircraft touches the ground. “The radiation emitted by the antenna is such, that if one turns the antenna on while on the ground it could be harmful to people around,” Bucher said. In the US, it’s mandatory to switch it off below 10,000ft.

The Economics

Lukas Bucher revealed that the cost to install this system on a single airliner ranges between $250,000 and $500,000. “If we take into consideration the amount of time the airplane is down, the opportunity cost of having it on the ground, and bringing it to Malta, that’s the ballpark cost.”

At a rate of $15 per passenger, Lufthansa would need to sell in-flight connectivity to almost 17,000 passengers to break even on this investment. That’s approximately 90 fully loaded A321 flights—not the biggest of challenges for such a big airline.


Testing the newly-equipped JetWave system on board a Lufthansa Airbus A321.

And the demand is such, that Lufthansa—and all European carriers for that matter—will surely embark themselves on the inflight connectivity era. A study made by Honeywell in 2014 revealed that 66% of passengers book their flights considering whether the airline offers wifi connectivity. In 2016, this number escalated to 92%. According to Inmarsat, 83% of passengers choose their airlines based on connectivity availability, and 54% would rather be connected on a flight than order a meal.

Testing the system

On an exclusive opportunity, Airways was invited to test Lufthansa’s Gx System on board a newly-fitted Airbus A321 flying from Malta to Frankfurt. Both Lufthansa Technik and Inmarsat representatives were on board, monitoring the system and showing its capabilities.

The system was switched on minutes after departing Malta. Speeds rapidly climbed to 3.8mpbs per user but then showed a little inconsistency as a temporary outages occurred. However, once the technical team rebooted the system, a stable connection kept us online until touching down in Frankfurt.

Several passengers managed to transmit live through Periscope and even made a few Skype video calls to people sitting on other latitudes of the planet.

The enthusiasm onboard the flight was such that happy Lufthansa Flight Attendants distributed cold bottles of Warsteiner Beer to light up the celebration.

Is The Future Here?

Jan-Peter Gaense believes the trend will continue to evolve and that connectivity is the way to go.

“You won’t see any embedded IFE systems in the future,” he said.

And that’s in-line with American Airlines’ recent decision to remove all embedded IFEs from its narrow-body fleet, relying on passengers bringing their own mobile devices and better connectivity provided by companies like Inmarsat and GoGo.

The Antenna before being covered with a protective and aerodynamic radome

The Antenna before being covered with a protective and aerodynamic radome

But in the Long-Haul and narrowbody game, Gaense sees it as a whole different story. “I don’t see a premium carrier taking that [IFE] away from passengers,” he said. “You have hundreds of passengers sitting close to each other for too many hours. Removing the IFE would be a very bad move, especially from the psychological point of view.”

But whether an aircraft is equipped with screens or not, keeping passengers connected will become the norm for the upcoming times. This puts Lufthansa ahead of its competitors and Lufthansa Technik ready to help others catch up.


About Author

Enrique Perrella

Enrique Perrella

Commercial Pilot and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Graduate. Aviation MBA, Av-Gas Addict, Spotter, Globetrotter, Airplane Collector, Cook, AS Roma fan, and on my free time, I fly the Airways Ship. Favorite airline, airport and aircraft: Viasa, Tokyo-Haneda, and MD-11. Love to Fly, Fly to Love.

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