Delta Air Lines has announced that it has partnered with Hughes Network Systems to transition more than 320 of its regional jets – in addition to around 80 narrowbodies – from air to ground (ATG) connectivity to Hughes’ new satcom-powered Jupiter in-flight connectivity (IFC) service. Installations are scheduled to take place across 2024 and 2025. The shift from ATG to satcom connectivity will bring Delta’s regional jets in line with the rest of the fleet and highlights the desire of the big North American airlines to harmonise their IFC service, as well as the broader passenger experience, across all their aircraft. Valour Consultancy expects to see the other large regional jet fleets in this part of the world migrate over to satellite-based solutions in the not too distant future.
The deal will mean a new connectivity supplier for around 80 Delta operated B717s, as well as around 190 CRJ 700/900s and approximately 140 E175s which are operated by subsidiary airline, Endeavor Air, as well as regional partners, Republic Airways and SkyWest Airlines. While Hughes has been a stakeholder in the IFC market for a long while, this is its first direct entry into the market as a service provider. The 400 aircraft included in this deal will be powered partly by Hughes’ huge new satellite, Jupiter 3, which was successfully launched in June 2023 and is scheduled to enter commercial service in 2024.
So, why now? What makes this move, and others which will surely follow, possible, is the emergence of smaller form factor flat panel antennas. Hughes will use ThinKom’s ThinAir Ka1717 terminal as part of this deal with Delta and it’s the scalability and discrete nature of newer flat panel antenna designs that is allowing satcom service providers to finally compete with ATG vendors in the lucrative North American regional jet market. Indeed, the Ka1717 has been specifically designed to target these aircraft.
The cost of IFC and weight of traditional terminals has typically constrained adoption on smaller airframes to ATG services and given that few other regions have an ATG network to rival North America it has meant that hardly any regional jets outside of the U.S. and Canada are equipped with connectivity, as can be seen in the chart below.
It should be noted, however, that Europe does have a hybrid network (operated by Viasat) which utilises ATG in conjunction with satcom connectivity, and the German ATG specialist, SkyFive, is developing new networks in the Middle East and China. So, it is not to say that ATG will not remain a part of the global connectivity landscape, just that there is a clear shift away from ATG serving regional jets in the North American market.
Alongside the cost benefits of flat panel antennas, the other key driver of the transition from ATG to satcom is the push for fleet harmonisation. Expectations for passenger-based connectivity are much higher in North America than elsewhere and frequent flyers in the region expect that service to be consistent across an airline’s mainline and regional operations. Incidentally, the service will be free for Delta’s SkyMiles members, again bringing the airline’s regional jets in line with the overall fleet strategy. As such, North American carriers, including American, Delta and United which operate regional and international services are projected to harmonise the entire in-cabin product, not just connectivity, to ensure it is consistent across the fleet.
For service providers such as Hughes, the timing could not be better with many of the large regional jet fleets in North America (such as PSA Airlines, Mesa Airlines, and Horizon Air) currently reliant on Intelsat’s (formerly Gogo’s) ATG service and now in the window for contract renewal. Leading IFC vendors have immediately targeted regional jets in marketing materials and are working towards certification on a number of popular models, like the Embraer E145, E175 and E190. Both Intelsat and Panasonic are using STELLAR BLU’s multi-orbit capable ESA, branded “SideWinder”, which is powered by Ball Aerospace antenna modules.
The opportunity for these companies is a significant one, with a sizable addressable market to pitch for. There are more than 1,400 commercial aircraft in North America equipped with ATG connectivity, the vast majority (around 95%) of which are regional jets. As such, Valour Consultancy expects to see similar announcements follow as IFC service providers compete hard for a new market which is opening up for them. Indeed, the North American market is far from saturated in this respect and a significant addressable market remains for retrofit activity.
For more information on what the future holds for connectivity in the regional jet market, as well as much more, please grab yourself a copy of Valour Consultancy’s latest study, “The Future of In-Flight Connectivity – 2023”. The flagship report, which is in its fifth edition, is the industry’s leading, dedicated report on IFC in commercial aviation. It was developed with input from more than 40 companies across the value chain, as well as airlines. The study also includes 170 pages of in-depth commentary on market issues, technology trends and the competitive environment, while market estimates and forecasts are provided out to 2032, contained in over 110 tables and charts.