A study released at the World ATM Congress in Madrid this week suggests that satellite communication (satcom) in the cockpit has saved airlines more than $3 billion over the last 15 years.

The study, conducted by aviation consultancy Helios on behalf of satcom service provider Inmarsat, points to benefits in safety and efficiency made possible by satcom in oceanic airspace as being the key generators of these savings.

The study found that a single air traffic control (ATC) benefit mechanism—reducing longitudinal separation minima from 100 nm to 30 nm—was responsible for savings of $890 million alone between 2001 and 2016. That reduction has been made possible by more reliable communications and tracking, and has generated significant capacity benefits in oceanic airspace, and particularly on the busy North Atlantic routes.

Of the $3 billion savings total, the study attributes roughly one-third, or $1.1 billion, to ATC savings, with reduced separation minima accounting for the lion’s share at $890 million. The remainder is accounted for by individually tailored flight plans, dynamic airborne rerouting, tailored arrivals, user preferred routes, and procedures in some oceanic regions to allow aircraft to climb or descend through an altitude that is already occupied by another aircraft.

The remaining two-thirds, or $1.9 billion, of savings are airline operational control (AOC) related, using real-time information to help airlines improve flight safety or provide a more efficient service at a lower cost. Traditionally AOC communication has been provided by the exchange of simple text messages between the pilot and the controller, but as satcom bandwidth capacity increases, bringing broadband connectivity to the cockpit, there is likely to be what the study describes as “an explosion of IP-based AOC applications, allowing airlines to further optimize flight operations and fleet management.” 

Inmarsat SVP-strategy and business development Freek van Essen told ATW: “The study was basically triggered by questions we get asked very often about providing satcom to airlines, such as what does it do, what does it contribute, why do users have to pay for satcom, and what does it deliver? We ourselves wanted to know if we could actually justify the cost of satcom against the benefits it delivers. So we asked Helios to examine how much satcom contributed and in what areas. Helios themselves were surprised by the amount, which was higher than they expected.”

Van Essen pointed out that satcom has been around since the 1990s, and has consistently generated benefits through classic AOC applications. However, the level of those benefits remained fairly static during the early years. It was only when trust in the system grew and airlines began implementing new procedures to exploit more advanced applications made possible by satcom that the level of benefits started to accelerate. “These benefits really started to increase from about 2010 onwards and since 2013, have been growing at a rate of about 35% a year,” van Essen said.

The Helios study looked at benefits over oceanic regions, but suggested that savings in continental airspace could be equally significant, with satcom complementing existing ground-to-air data communications.

Helios MD Nick McFarlane said: “This is the first time that the benefits of satellite communication have been quantified and the results are impressive. The technology has already delivered huge benefits to the industry and emerging applications mean the trend is set to continue, in fact it is set to accelerate.”

Inmarsat Aviation VP-safety and operational services Mary McMillan said: “With the arrival of IP-based applications and new data-hungry cockpits, secured satcom enables cloud-computing and sensor fusion and delivers a step-change in critical safety data, as well as improved operational performance of today’s fleets. The potential to enhance the safety and efficiency of air travel is unlimited.”