Viasat aviation team gets creative to work around COVID restrictions

The inside story of how Viasat’s first KLM aircraft installation was performed, in part, from afar


Installing a first-of-type in-flight connectivity system on an aircraft thousands of miles away with just a skeleton team physically present on site might sound like a tall order. But creativity and positivity are in Viasat’s DNA, and our commercial aviation team rose to the occasion by leveraging prior experience working remotely to ensure that KLM’s first prototype installation remained on schedule — despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanks to the team’s monumental efforts and Viasat’s tremendous partnership with KLM, passengers on the Dutch airline’s short- and medium-haul European flights began trialling the new Wi-Fi service on April 22. Viasat is bringing connectivity to 68 aircraft for KLM, starting with 18 of KLM’s Boeing 737-800s and 21 of its Embraer E195 aircraft.

The announcement of a new contract with KLM to equip a large portion of its single-aisle fleet with Viasat’s Ka-band Wi-Fi system came during the company’s Fiscal Year Q2 ’21 earnings report. As it turned out, the date for the first prototype installation fell during a time when international travel was possibly at its most restricted due to a resurgent COVID-19 pandemic.

To keep the contract on schedule, this meant finding a new way of working to enable the Viasat team and Viasat’s integrator to complete the first KLM Boeing 737-800 installation using largely remote practices.

“The beautiful part of this story is that the team was able to accomplish this complex task when, in all prior years, we have always been onsite throughout the process,” says Viasat airline program manager Amber Baldridge, who manages the KLM account. “Despite COVID not allowing us to travel out there, we were still able to hold to schedule and achieve this huge milestone.”

From onsite to online

In normal times, a team of about 10 people — including program managers, technical account management, project engineers, structural engineers, electrical engineers, and field service engineers — would be physically present onsite to oversee the initial installation start to finish. With the pandemic, this had to be scaled back to just a few onsite staff for a shorter duration, with most of the team members working remotely.

Installation work began Dec. 27, and just one month later the first KLM 737-800 was equipped with Viasat’s system — with the vital supplementary type certificate (STC) being issued.

Though altogether a smooth installation, the remote process did add a layer of complexity. For instance, the team encountered an issue when a server did not initially receive data from the flight management computer, but it was an issue they were ultimately able to overcome remotely.

“When you are physically onsite, you can swiftly gain context of a situation,” Baldridge says. “For example, you have the opportunity to interact directly with the MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul provider), and you can go right out to the aircraft and troubleshoot when needed. When you’re working remotely, you’re relying on descriptions from the MRO and the field service engineer, which adds complexity.”

Viasat’s Berlin-based regional program director Maik Brueckner points out that the team was already well-versed in conducting meetings over Zoom, and this stood them in good stead for what was to come. While carrying out the initial installation remotely was “a little bit more intense,” this prior experience of using remote working practices meant the team was in a strong position.

“We have weekly calls and monthly reviews that we’re doing over Zoom if we can’t travel, so this was an extension of the relationship we built during the contract negotiations, and we were able to leverage all of this,” says Brueckner. He adds that working so closely, albeit remotely, was a great bonding experience that helped strengthen Viasat’s relationship with KLM.

Time to celebrate

Coming full circle, Zoom will also enable the Viasat and KLM teams to soon celebrate what they have accomplished when they meet for a virtual happy hour.

“This process started and was worked out by Zoom, and it will be closed by Zoom,” Brueckner says, although he notes that the strong bonds formed under these unique circumstances will last beyond the popping of champagne corks.

“We’re looking forward to meeting face-to-face when it’s possible again,” says Brueckner. “KLM is a dominant force in Europe, and we are thrilled to have them as a partner.”

Viasat remains on track to meet its commitment to retrofit five of KLM’s 737-800s with its high-speed broadband service by the end of May. A total of 18 737-800s are expected to have the system installed by the end of 2021 and to be in service by early 2022.

KLM is Viasat’s seventh airline customer in the region, alongside Finnair, SAS, La Compagnie, Icelandair, El Al, and NEOS.

Viasat’s European Ka-band service is supported by capacity from the company’s KA-SAT satellite. The equipment is forward-compatible with the upcoming ViaSat-3 constellation, the second satellite of which will cover Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Michelle Munoz-Talcott is Marketing Director, Global Mobile Solutions at Viasat. She leads marketing and strategy in the Global Mobile Solutions segment, which includes commercial and business aviation as well as maritime. She has over 20 years of marketing experience in the technology and wireless industries including Verizon, Vodafone and Nokia (formally Alcatel-Lucent). Her roles have included working in all facets of marketing and product management as well as international posts in Europe.