Inmarsat Aviation president Leo Mondale has predicted an acceleration in airline connectivity decisions, as the latest generation of inflight broadband comes online.

“I think we are going to see the pace of decisions pick up considerably this year and we expect to get more than our share,” Mondale told a small media gathering at the Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg.

More than 60 aircraft have already been equipped with GX Aviation high-speed broadband and Inmarsat’s backlog of aircraft under binding contract now exceeds 1,000. “You will need to time-stamp that [backlog figure] because in a few weeks it is going to be quite a lot more than that,” Mondale said.

Inmarsat SVP-strategy and business development Frederik van Essen said talks are quite advanced with a lot of airlines, which will lead to more announcements. Airlines are typically risk-averse, but it helps now the technology is live and the critical milestones have been cleared. “They want to see how it looks and feels,” Van Essen said.

Last summer Inmarsat took GX Aviation on a seven-week world tour, using a Honeywell Boeing 757 test aircraft, which flew around the Earth from Phoenix, stopping in Europe, the Middle East, Singapore, Macau, Australia and New Zealand.

Van Essen said the aircraft turned into an “office in the sky,” as the connectivity meant the team could organize logistics enroute, while testing the system’s global performance.

“No one dreamed of what they would be able to do with mobile phone apps and I think we will see the same thing with airline connectivity,” Van Essen said.

Mondale agrees the industry is walking on completely new ground. “Nobody knows what the requirement is going to turn into. This isn’t your home sofa or your smartphone. It’s a very specific-use case. We don’t know how the market will react to a broadband product, because it hasn’t been done.”

However, he rejected a recent suggestion from Chicago-based aviation broadband specialist Gogo that inflight bandwidth is no longer an issue. “If you look at airline routes and satellite capacity, they are not the same shape. Airlines and passengers don’t spread out nicely, beam-by-beam, and take turns to use it. This is a case of maximum theoretical capacity. If you could sell it that way, great, but capacity if only good if you have it where people want it,” he said.

Mondale went on to a draw parallel with the real estate industry. “We ask customers where they would like us to build, and then we build it and lease it back. We can get just about every airline in the world started with what we have. We collect data from 11,000 aircraft daily, so we have a pretty good idea of where they go.”

Over the past few years, the industry has also seen some changes. Previously, airlines were reluctant to take their aircraft out of service to equip them with connectivity, but Mondale said this is not the case anymore. Also, questions used to be asked over whether connectivity was wanted and if people would use it, but the underlying demand is definitely there.

“It’s a market like selling candy to babies,” Mondale said, flagging how many passengers carry multiple devices and expected to be always connected. “People are looking for Wi-Fi. The demand side is there and the technology is ready. The question is how far will it go and whether it will replace inflight entertainment. This year and next year [connectivity] is going to start getting pretty common. I think we are going to see very good adoption. During my 30 years in the aviation business, I have never seen such a clear market for expansion.”

Victoria Moores victoria.moores@penton.com