How one flight changed the world of aviation

A look back at the evolution of inflight connectivity

On 17 December 2007, as many Europeans were putting the finishing touches to their Christmas trees and braving the elements to get to work, an Airbus A318 took off. It was a moment that would change the way the world viewed inflight technology, and would set the scene for huge advancements in aviation connectivity.

Ten years ago Inmarsat worked hand in hand with SITAONAIR to pioneer the first groundbreaking inflight mobile phone call on an international flight. The plane also offered a mobile OnAir system which allowed passengers to send and receive SMS and MMS messages, and for those phones that had internet, to send and receive emails. It was the starting point of a six month trial to test new technology, with passengers on board the A318 making and receiving phone calls (and using SMS and MMS) on the Nokia and Blackberry handsets that were popular at the time.

In 2007, this was truly cutting edge stuff.

At the time, Benoit Debains, CEO of OnAir said: “This marks an important phase in the implementation of a new generation of inflight services and we are confident that this trial will define the future standards in terms of inflight passenger communication”.

Taking into consideration what the top technology trends of 2007 were (TV began to stream to laptops and Facebook started to gather momentum), aviation technology was mirroring that advance.

"Ten years ago being able to bring your own phone on board was very exciting"

Eric Plantaz, Inmarsat Aviation’s Senior Director, Strategic OEM Relationship, was on that flight ten years ago. To understand how groundbreaking the ability to make inflight phone calls was, he says, it’s important to remember where we were technologically ten years ago. “At the time, passengers could place phone calls through ‘wired-to-the-seat’ systems, but at 12 dollars per minute that was used more for emergencies than pleasure. Ten years ago, being able to bring your own phone on board was very exciting. You could bring your own device with all your contacts, emails, numbers, but also use your laptop equipped with a SIM card. What was being offered was more than just sending an SMS – you could use your own device on board, and it worked!”

Some years later SITAONAIR worked in partnership with Inmarsat to develop groundbreaking GX Aviation, the world’s first truly global, high-speed broadband service. The result? Inflight connectivity that’s so good it’s comparable to an at-home experience.

"Ten years is a long time in aviation and during this period the solution has evolved, allowing passengers to use their smart phones as they would on the ground"

Gregory Ouillon, Chief Technology Officer at SITAONAIR, said: “It’s remarkable to think that it was just ten years ago that SITAONAIR launched the world’s first inflight mobile service on board an international flight. Ten years is a long time in aviation and during this period the solution has evolved to become an essential component of the full cabin connectivity experience.

“One major shift has been the trend towards the convergence of Wi-Fi and cellular technologies, which delivers the best of both worlds. Passenger expectations can be met by offering a hybrid experience that can leverage the advantages of both a Wi-Fi and a cellular connection. Importantly, SITAONAIR is one of the few industry players with the knowledge, assets and skill base to make this convergence happen.”

Plantaz explains that the ability to use your mobile on board was a real breakthrough.

“In 2007, there were lots of fears which disappeared during that first flight. There were concerns about interference with the aircraft systems, social aspects such as noise pollution or passengers not listening to announcements. But we did a lot of testing, certifying, and explaining, and we helped to show the air transport community why it’s safe and useful to have this technology. Also that this kind of capability would be seen as ‘normal’ in 10 years.”

Frederik van Essen, Inmarsat Aviation’s Senior Vice President of Strategy and Business Development, said: “Passenger expectations around inflight connectivity have dramatically evolved over the past decade. Inmarsat worked shoulder to shoulder with SITAONAIR ten years ago to pioneer the first ever inflight mobile phone call on an international flight.

“Today, we are introducing unprecedented new capacities with GX Aviation, ensuring that airline passengers can browse the internet, stream videos, check social media and more during flights, with an onboard connectivity experience comparable to the mobile broadband services they may receive on the ground.”

The ability to stream movies to our laptops inflight or digitally download a song may no longer be a novelty, but it’s worth bearing in mind how far we’ve come. 10 years ago, calling from your phone was considered bleeding edge technology and now passengers are updating Facebook at 35,000ft. The world is moving fast – so what’s next?

Plantaz says he expects the pace of inflight connectivity to continue.

“10 years ago we had barely existing Wi-Fi networks – now we have phones that do everything and we have ‘connected’ the passengers. We are working now on connecting the aircraft and its systems even further. In 10 years’ time, we will have moved from IoT (Internet of Things) on the ground, to IoTtF (Internet of Things that Fly),” he adds.

Fast, frictionless and always-on – aviation’s future will have connectivity at its heart.

You can read our partner SITAONAIR's story here.