January 4th, 2015

Bad headline, silly commentary, interesting background

[TL; DR? Read this instead: http://www.wsj.com/articles/airliner-tracking-to-become-norm-1416185142 What's actually being proposed and will likely happen is every 15 minute location data required for flights over areas with minimal radar coverage. Also, Mr. Smith says 40K daily flights; WSJ say 100K -- the vast majority unaffected by the rule change.]


I waste time on the internet. BI is a preferred location for doing so.

This item has a terrible headline. Hopefully Patrick Smith is not responsible for it.

Smith is responding to an op-ed in the NYT. Here is a link to the op-ed, which is not provided in the BI piece, which is a reprint from AskThePilot.com.


Smith claims that the op-ed has errors in it. Here is one of the errors.

"Airlines use satellites to provide Internet connections for passengers, yet they still do not stream data in real time about a plane’s location and condition."

Smith says, "Neither of these things is true, usually.", which includes the quote above as one of the items. Yet it _is_ true. Smith thinks that because in many parts of the world, airplanes are in real time contact, that constitutes streaming data in real time about a plane's location AND CONDITION. But it doesn't. It's location. And then Smith concedes that transoceanic flights don't even do that. So the op-ed is actually right and the criticism is misleading.

I wouldn't have picked on JUST a stupid logic error. Really. I came here to pick on Patrick Smith for this:

"The main reason why is because it would take immense mounts of bandwidth, multiplied by the thousands of airplanes in the air at any one time, to upload all of the hundreds of parameters monitored by the FDR and CVR. And for what practical purpose, exactly? For the one airplane every 25 years or so that is temporarily missing, out of the 40,000 or so commercial flights that operate every day? Such a thing is certainly possible, but it would be technologically challenging and highly expensive. Is it really needed, in practical terms?

This issue comes up all the time. To me, it’s symptomatic of a culture in which people are accustomed to instant explanations and instant access to everything. People are saying, “Why can’t we have all the answers, right now!”"

(1) The op-ed wasn't suggesting full telemetry transmission all the time for all aircraft. You can transmit summary condition information very, very briefly -- like, a few bits. And that's kinda what people are proposing.

(2) 3 commercial aircraft have fallen out of the sky recently, granted, one was due to enemy action. But the other two weren't, and we still haven't found one of them. "For the one airplane every 25 years or so that is temporarily missing" is a crude, dismissive, and flippant way to respond to TWO commercial aircraft going down in the same quarter of the world -- and one of them STILL not found. The searches and news coverage and plain old human agony suffered as a result are expensive. I don't think that tracking a few bits of condition data and full location data on 40,000 flights a day is too much to ask in a world where I can track my husband, High Priestess, sister, son, etc. using Find My Friends. Much less in a world where you can get little devices that use low e bluetooth to keep track of your keys and shit.

I don't know why Patrick Smith, AskThePilot.com, or BI thinks it is a good idea to produce this bad of an argument in favor of NOT tracking transoceanic commercial flights. But I've got sort of a conspiracy theory going that says Patrick Smith is an idiot, and everyone else is using him to present a sincere straw man for them to argue against, in favor of what they really want ... which is location and condition monitoring.

Poor Mr. Smith. Sacrificed as clickbait.

ETA: I would argue that it is particularly important that the part of the world where Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 went down in March, and the more recent December crash of the AirAsia flight come up with solutions to the tracking and condition problem, because increasing standard of living and increasing air travel in the region will tend to exacerbate this problem until an adequate solution is devised.

ETAYA: There's at least one (downvoted) commenter over on FlightAware who refers to Mr. Smith as "this clown".

ETAYA: My husband would like to remind people that the airplane that was Air France 447 in 2009 was not found until 2011, altho bodies and debris were found within a few days.

I will also point out that this would appear to be the basis for Mr. Smith saying this only happens ever 25 years:


That was the last flight on the wikipedia list for commercial airline incidents before the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 to never be found, and it occurred in 1989.

Characterizing two airplanes going missing, one for 9 or 10 months and still not found, the other for 25 years and still not found, and characterizing that as one every 25 years going temporarily missing is incredibly calloused. There was also the Air France one in 2009 that was missing for 2 years as well, which makes 1 every 25 years just wrong. My husband would like to point out that the expense associated with the searches is really pretty incredible.

CHANGE IS BAD, airline tracking edition


I'm looking mostly at the comments here, because I'm sort of fascinated by the idea that people are arguing about tracking airliners over oceans.

vbscript2 sez:

"It's not a trivial amount of traffic when it's tens of thousands of aircraft all using satellite uplinks. Most in-flight wi-fi systems (all of them that I've ever been on a plane with) connect to ground-based towers, not satellites, as it's generally cheaper and faster. I think some airlines may be exploring (or perhaps even already have in service?) systems that use satellite links for over-water flights, though. I would assume that, even once such systems are in operation, the vast majority of flights would still use connections to the ground to the maximum extent possible, though, as it's much cheaper, requires much less power, and wastes less RF spectrum."

That was (at the time I write this) 4 days ago. Hey, what is going on with JetBlue's Fly-Fi?


They are bragging about their Ka band satellite technology and how it is better than ground to air or Ku band. So there's that. I really, really, really do understand that some parts of the world have better satellite coverage than others. I do. But that's not what vbscript2 is arguing. It's arguing that "all of them that I've been on a plane with" connect to ground and extrapolating from there that none are using satellite systems.

But hey, why look at a US airline? Let's try something a bit closer to the area under the microscope.


They are at least offering satellite phone. One of their providers is OnAir.


"OnAir uses Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband (SBB) latest generation satellite services. Using the SBB technology, we deliver high-speed, high-capacity voice and data solutions with the world's best international coverage."

Honestly, losing a flight in this area because of lack of satellite reporting of location while OTHER flights in this area are offering wifi (true, for a kind of amazing fee if you are on the volume based plan) via satellite ... well, you want to talk inequality, THAT is inequality. The movement to require location reporting via satellite every 15 minutes is essentially a global middle class being all righteously angry about the conditions for the poors. Especially when it starts impacting the middle class. Generally speaking, arguing _against_ one of these reform movements (you know, taking the anti-abolition side) is a bad idea. However, occasionally, you look smart later on (anti-prohibition). Only time will tell.

Link FU: BYOD vs Seatback for next gen IFE(C)

First, a translation for that acronymically obscure headline!

BYOD = Bring Your Own Device. Rather than supplying you with a TV or a phone or a tablet or a gaming system, you are expected to bring your own. To support your device, wireless inter/intra net is often provided, perhaps for a fee. Power may or may not be provided for a fee as well. Some contexts will help you get your device working on the internet; many will just supply you with some piece of paper or announcement or sign that indicates the network name and password and from there, you are on your own.

Seatback: when you are on an airplane, and looking at the back of the headrest of the seat in front of you, there is often a video display unit. Aka, a TV. In this context, "Seatback" refers to that kind of entertainment system.

IFE(C): In Flight Entertainment (and Connectivity) Starting with 16mm projection in the 1960s and proceeding through 8mm, video tape, disc, CRT and flat screen systems, many flights over the years have offered some form of audio/video entertainment. In the United States, these heavy, electrical systems are subject to stringent safety requirements enforced by the FAA. They are expensive, and the regulatory component of the process makes airlines loathe to upgrade, however, they are heavy and as long as fuel is expensive airlines are motivated to move in a lighter direction. If system modifications can also make it possible to wedge more seats in (seatback systems require thicker seats, for example), that's also a motivation.

Wikipedia article on IFE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In-flight_entertainment

Hypothesis: the flat screens we are currently accustomed to, operated by a wired remote, or by buttons in the armrest, and used in conjunction with electronic headphones (either bring your own or rented/complimentary from the airline) are due for replacement. The transition currently involves adding cabin wifi (and in some parts of the world, cellular service), however, once we are fully through the transition, there will no longer be seatback screens. They will have been replaced by power and data connectivity and a BYOD policy, probably in conjunction with in-cabin rentals of tablets. The tablets are likely to be Android, running a custom layer on top commissioned by the airline and designed to interface well with the in-flight movie content licensed by the carrier. The power and/or data connectivity may have a free layer for light use (email, chat) but requiring a volume based payment (by time increment or by gigs used) for heavier use (streaming movies, skyping a business meeting).

Basically, some time in the next few years, you'll get on your JetBlue or United Flight with your laptop, tablet, phone, etc., make sure they can all connect to cabin wifi, plug in anything that is running low on battery, and otherwise proceed as if you were at Starbucks. Anyone who fails to bring their own device will be forced to consume aging magazines, altho presumably at some point they will be able to rent a tablet. On flights where wi-fi to terrestrial internet is unavailable, there will likely be intranet available on the flight to stream movies to devices. Cabin crew will have a panel somewhere with a bunch of data sticks that plug into USB slots to serve the content.

Supporting evidence for the hypothesis:


Hey, I found this _after_ I came up with my hypothesis. Altho you have no reason to believe me.

"Passengers are clearly “equipped’ for wireless IFE, and they’re primed to access streamed content in the air. Airlines are looking to provide enhanced tablets to those who don’t “BYOD” – bring your own device."

The usual issues apply: can we monetize it? Adequately? And how the hell do we deal with all those different kinds of devices?

"Préfontaine suggests that the revenue potential for wireless IFE has been tested, but is not yet proven. But will the revenue generated ever offset the cost of a wireless IFE system? “There isn’t an answer yet, but I don’t think so,” he says.

Wireless IFE installations can offer the passenger a new in-flight experience, but Préfontaine says that management of the multitude of devices and operating systems is a critical factor in making the experience a positive one. The regional differences in device popularity also needs to be addressed."

One airline is already doing this:


Other airlines are in process:


Honig emphasizes that the screens are gone, and that is confusing people who think there has been a return to the Bad Old Days.

"Earlier this year, I boarded a United flight from Newark to San Diego. After passing the first few rows, a young boy turned to his mother and asked, "Why aren't there any TVs?"

"It's probably an older plane," she responded -- but that couldn't be further from the truth."

Worse, in some cases, the screens are gone and the Good New Stuff isn't fully deployed:

"Instead of the DirecTV logo that occasionally appears in the entertainment section of United's flight status page, the flight only listed onboard WiFi, along with a promise from the airline: "Personal device entertainment is coming soon," which will enable you to view content streaming from the plane using your own laptop, smartphone or tablet. Boeing delivers all of United's 737s without entertainment or WiFi -- instead, a third party handles the installation. But since airlines want to get their new planes into service immediately, they usually schedule installations, which take an aircraft out of commission for several days, for a few weeks or months down the line. That means hundreds of bored passengers every day, and a negative perception of the plane and the airline."


That article is where I got the part of the hypothesis that said content would be a bunch of USB sticks. So, yeah, I ripped bits out of that one.

Comments suggest there are a fair number of people who are going to want to rent an in-cabin tablet. And they may balk at the rental part.

I got interested in this topic because of a really silly BI repost of a Patrick Smith getoffmylawn screed against requiring transoceanic flights to provide location and possibly some condition information every 15 minutes. A lot of people think that if we can readily track people and phones, tracking planes really shouldn't be that difficult or even that expensive. Contrary to what numerous commenters and the author of the stupidity believe, it really isn't that difficult or that expensive -- that is, the uninformed masses are actually more correct than people who believe they have relevant expertise.

I have a theory about what is going on here. I'll be exploring it in a later post.

Speed of Innovation in consumer electronics, car, airplanes

It is trivially obvious that small consumer electronics such as computers, phones and media players are replaced more rapidly than cars, and cars, in turn, are replaced more rapidly than airplanes. (I KNOW YOU CAN FIND EXCEPTIONS TO THIS RULE. Also, please don't share your story with me here. Git yer own damn soapbox.) Naturally, then, consumers are more willing to accept change in consumer electronics than in cars and airplanes. They were going to have to replace their computer, phone or media player anyway; having to get one that has a different power system or works on a different frequency or plays a different format is probably not completely the end of the world. Annoying, sure.

Cars are a little trickier. It's a bigger investment. There's more risk associated with a car. If you live in a place that requires seasonal tire changes, you have to get new wheels and tires with a new car and that's not a trivial thing. You might have to get a new rack to put on top or a new towing set up for your trailer or boat. These are not cheap things. One is inclined to be conservative. However reluctant one might have been to be the first person they knew to buy a particular small electronic, one is probably way more reluctant to buy the first model year of a new car. You sort of want someone else to deal with all the early problems.

Typical consumers don't buy planes, so the decision making process is clearly different. Fundamentally, most planes are bought like apartments or hotels: the intention is to rent out space in them. Capacity utilization is pretty important, especially when fuel is expensive. And planes are incredibly expensive. Once you have one, you usually would prefer to keep running it, rather than buy a new one, even if the new one would get better fuel economy, or people might like the lie flat seats better.

As much as I am tempted to believe that innovation doesn't occur in a lot of automobile manufacturers, they really do try (even American car makers). It can be hard to remember, when we are demanding the car interact well with our media player or computer or phone or whatever, that the car maker designed that car before that media existed or that phone OS had been widespread, etc. Presumably, if iOS and Android and so forth stabilize over a long enough period of time (or, heck, now that USB has become enough of a standard), we can expect more cars to play nice with our gadgets. Expecting airplanes to play nice with our gadgets actually seems like an unbelievably huge lift.

Except it shouldn't be. While fuel has gotten cheaper, it is still not _that_ cheap, and it probably won't stay super cheap forever, and even if it did, there would still be all those carbon regulatory regimes in various parts of the world motivating companies to try to reduce their fuel expenditures. And in flight entertainment systems are hideously heavy and expensive.

So what does it look like to replace them with BYOD? How do you make an airplane -- which will be in service in the configuration it ships it for 5 or more years -- play nice with devices now in the United States, devices now in Asia, devices now in Europe, devices 5 years from now in all of the above, blah, blah, bleeping blah? The obvious answer is: supply data connectivity (wifi) and power. But even supplying power is going to be tricky, at least on transoceanic flights (do you supply adapters? Multiple outlets?). Data connectivity could be intranet (to let people stream airline licensed movies to their devices from an onboard intranet, and maybe let them chat and play games with other people on that intranet), ground-to-air connection to terrestrial internet, or one of several satellite internet connections. Airlines like United seem to be doing All Of the Above. Others are picking and choosing. I have no idea what criteria they _are_ using to pick, never mind what they should be using.

Ground based internet tells us that whatever bandwidth you provide, in short order, people will be complaining that it is too slow, and all those Netflix streaming people are hogging it but don't want to be deprioritized, and you know other cities/countries/continents have much faster broadband EVERYWHERE so why can't we? Ground based internet also tells us that even after a large enough chunk of your telephony customers cut the cord so you can't make any money on PSTN, there will be a bunch of The Olds insisting that you keep providing it and restoring it after damage and threatening you with regulatory punishment if you don't.

So an airplane that provides you with a power outlet configured for the country of your departure's power system and wifi that connects to terrestrial internet is going to have to deal with things like How Come My Tablet Won't Connect and Where Is the TV and I Didn't Bring a Tablet How Do I Watch the Movie?

I foresee job security for the cabin crew. Oh, and I foresee job openings for IT pros in the sky.