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Airline Emergency Communication Goes Wi-Fi

Aircraft can now send and exchange text-based messages across a secure network in the event radio communications are down, or if there is trouble contacting the ground.

by / June 9, 2011

A new Web-based communication service will soon help airline personnel securely connect in real-time with government officials in an emergency.

Called Inflight 911 Services, the technology allows flight staff to use an aircraft’s Wi-Fi Internet connection to exchange text-based messages across a secure network in the event radio communications are down, or if there is trouble contacting the ground. Messages are simultaneously delivered to individuals in federal agencies and an administrative team at Inflight 911 Services.

The service is designed to be used on mobile devices such as iPads, smartphones and laptop computers, so whether in the cockpit or in the cabin, emergency messages can be sent quickly, allowing responders more time to react to a situation.

“This system gives [government officials] the heads-up that something just happened, and it’s not 40 minutes old,” said Joseph A. Bekanich, administrator of Los Gatos, Calif.-based InFlight Labs, which created Inflight 911 Services. “It’s two-way, so you can go back and forth from the pilot to the ground.”

When used, the technology’s Web interface encrypts, stores and transmits the emergency message along with a detailed user profile, flight information and air crew details. The data is time- and date-stamped and is downloadable for future reference.

Redundant communications systems have been present on aircraft for years. Bob Mann, an airline industry analyst with R.W. Mann & Company, said that the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) currently is used in most Wi-Fi-enabled aircraft and allows pilots similar two-way communication ability to what Inflight 911 Services provides, but over radio frequencies, not Wi-Fi.

Mann said that the messages on ACARS are typically short and operational in nature and go from a company — such as an airline — to a single plane and can also be used in a broadcast fashion, transmitting from the company to an entire fleet, or vice-versa.  While Inflight 911 Services has an edge on being accessible on mobile devices, the analyst said Wi-Fi access is dependent on microcells, which are easily jammed.

“If there is an advantage, it would be the ability to communicate with a group of agencies over the Inflight 911 Services gateway,” Mann said.

Bekanich said that the process of getting government agencies such as the FBI, CIA and the Department of Homeland Security on board is still ongoing, but he’s confident Inflight 911 Services would be released in late third quarter 2011. Bekanich added that while his company is marketing the technology as “Plan B,” it could quite easily be a primary option for emergency communications in the future.

“In some respects, it could be the first plan of action as if it was a terrorist incident — then I think you would want to apprise all those government officials,” Bekanich said.

Mann maintained that the industry already has an extensive toolbox when it comes to in-flight communications and felt the use of Wi Fi-enabled, Web-based in-flight emergency communications would come down to simple company preference.

“I think the issue here is not so much that this does something that nothing else does, but rather we have a lot of tools that can be configured to do a lot of things,” Mann said. “If [Inflight 911 Services] is desirable, airlines will probably choose between expanding the scope of existing tools or potentially bringing in a new [one].”

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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