Lufthansa Group said it plans to become the “most digital aviation group” in 2017, chairman and CEO Carsten Spohr said at the company’s digital aviation forum Jan. 10.

To kick off the plan, the German company has begun the next phase of testing Lufthansa FlyNet internet access, initially on five Airbus A320s each at Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines. The trial, which begins Jan. 10 with plans for a full market launch within the 2017 first quarter, will include free service and will offer internet access on inner-European routes.

Passengers who fly on these aircraft will be offered free internet use during this test phase. Lufthansa passengers can gain Wi-Fi access to the internet using their own mobile devices.

In the future, three service packages will be available, priced at €3 ($3.16) for FlyNet Message, €7 for FlyNet Surf and €12 for FlyNet Stream.

Lufthansa executive board member and chief officer-hub management Harry Hohmeister told ATW the company is “investing €300 million in digitalization for our customers [excluding Lufthansa internal digitalization) until 2020.”

ATW joined a special A319 flight Jan. 10 from Frankfurt, flying over Luxembourg and France, and returning to Frankfurt. On board the aircraft, passengers were able to join a live conference via a smartphone [provided by Lufthansa] from the pilots in the cockpit, guests in the cabin and from the ground.

In the first quarter of 2017, the number of Lufthansa aircraft outfitted with internet access will increase to around 20. The entire Lufthansa A320 fleet is to be equipped with the latest advanced technology by the middle of 2018.

ATW understands that one Airbus A320 can be reconfigured for the internet service in four days of downtime. “We doing this at the same time on six different [maintenance] locations, on a series of 10 production lines, working simultaneously, at the Lufthansa Technik sites,” a Lufthansa Technik expert said during the onboard web conference.

By spring, nearly 100 aircraft are scheduled to be equipped with the required antennae and routers.

The retrofitting of all 31 Austrian Airlines aircraft is scheduled to be completed before the end of April 2017. In addition, 69 Eurowings aircraft can be fitted with the systems by the summer of 2017.

Hohmeister said the carrier is also considering introducing FlyNet on the short-haul and mid-range fleet of Swiss International Air Lines.

Lufthansa’s partner Inmarsat uses Ka-band satellite technology that allows coverage on short- and medium-haul flights via Inmarsat’s network Global Xpress (GX). Inmarsat partner Deutsche Telekom will be the internet service provider for Lufthansa passengers.

“We have three satellites, which are 36,000 km away [from the earth] and we can cover the entire world. We will have a fourth satellite on order that was actually planned as a spare satellite. But the demand from airlines is huge, so we can offer better quality [by adding a fourth satellite],” Inmarsat SVP-strategy and business development Frederik van Essen told ATW on board the test flight.

Inmarsat has invested $4 billion, four satellites and the necessary ground infrastructure on this project.

In 2003, Lufthansa was the operator of the first commercial long-haul flight to have broadband internet access.  The service had to be taken off the market in 2006 despite its technically reliable system and growing popularity with passengers, because the necessary “Connexion by Boeing” satellites ceased operations.

Since the end of 2010, Lufthansa has again been offering broadband internet access on its intercontinental flights. Since June 2015, FlyNet has been available on all 107 Lufthansa long-haul aircraft.

Kurt Hofmann