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Airtel ATN: Making aviation safer, greener, and more efficient

Ireland is often described as being at the centre of the world’s aviation sector, and Airtel ATN is one of the innovative Irish-owned companies that is driving transformation in this important industry. 

The Dun Laoghaire based aviation communications specialist’s Airborne Routers are now installed in 10,000 aircraft around the world – that’s over one-third of all commercial aircraft in service today. And that’s just one of this dynamic company’s markets. At present, every Airbus and around half of Boeing aircraft coming out of their factories have Airtel technology installed.

“We provide software for avionics and for air traffic controllers on the ground and the State companies that manage airspace,” explains Santi Ibarz, CEO of Airtel ATN. “We also provide routers and test suites to the communications service providers who manage the air to ground transmission networks for the Data Link service, and we provide test and validation services to the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) market.”

The company’s story started in 1998 when Frank O’Connor and Norman Stewart, who had extensive experience in the telecommunications sector, came together to found Airtel ATN with the aim of delivering solutions for the aeronautic market. The company now counts all of the leading aircraft manufacturers, including Airbus, Boeing and Embraer, among its customers.

The company’s cutting-edge software, the Airborne Router, facilitates Data Link connections between aircraft and the Air Traffic Control (ATC) network. The Airtel software enables aircraft to communicate with air traffic controllers via a data link instead of voice conversations. This brings significant benefits, according to the Airtel ATN CEO.

“It’s the equivalent of a text message on a mobile phone,” he explains. “Using text instead of voice reduces errors and improves the quality of the communication.”

Improved communication also delivers other benefits, such as more efficient routing which supports more sustainable practises, such as fuel savings and consequent reductions in aircraft engine emissions. From a business perspective, the technology aids airlines in recovering from schedule delays, including those caused by severe weather events.

In financial terms, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has estimated that Data Link technology could produce $10 billion in savings, as well as $1 billion for the FAA, over 30 years.

This success has not come overnight, and the company’s global footprint has been a long time in the making due to strategic hard work and pioneering innovations. 

“It’s a very niche market,” says Ibarz. “In this industry, the process from product inception to deployment can take between seven and 10 years. It takes a very long time to design a product, put it in an aircraft, test it, and get it certified by the different authorities. It’s an extremely long sales cycle.”

Airtel ATN are an Enterprise Ireland supported company, with a relationship spanning almost 25 years. 

“Enterprise Ireland have been great,” says Ibarz. “Enterprise Ireland has given us funding to support R&D work, which supported the development of the first version of our product, and continues to support other such R&D projects. Enterprise Ireland also coordinates European Space Agency (ESA) programmes which we participate in.”

One of those ESA programmes is Iris, which aims to make aviation safer, greener and more efficient by developing a new satellite-based air–ground communication system for air traffic management. Its objective is to enable full 4D trajectory management over airspaces across the globe by 2028 with the data link being the primary means of communications between controllers and cockpit crews.

According to Ibarz, air traffic management systems can currently tell where an aircraft is at a given moment, and its projected trajectory and where it aims to be at a future time. The next generation of aircraft is now able to download via data link the trajectory that the onboard avionics has calculated, the Airtel ATN CEO says that air traffic managements systems can use this onboard data to build the most efficient routes for aircraft, and can calculate the best time for it to ascend or descend to avoid congestion, for example.

According to Eurocontrol, the European organisation for the safety of air navigation, this new technology could save as much as 10kg of fuel per flight. With well over 20,000 flights in Europe every day, the cost savings and environmental benefits are potentially enormous.

Enterprise Ireland is committed to supporting Irish companies to become global leaders in their field, and this includes assisting businesses with identifying new potential markets for entry or growth opportunities.

“The Enterprise Ireland team does a super job helping us with market research,” says Ibarz. “They also have a local presence in key markets around the world, including Japan and China. The work they do on the ground is very helpful. For example, they organised an event in Beijing at the Irish Embassy which was attended by an Irish government minister. It is very beneficial for companies like us to be able to invite local customers to events like that. That sort of on the ground, in market, support is hugely important.”

Despite all of this, Mr Ibarz firmly believes the company’s success is based on the quality of its people. 

He continues:  “The company is built on our team of 25 great people. They are probably the best in the world at the jobs they do. We will continue investing in our people. They are the company’s key asset and what keeps us ahead of our competitors. 

“We have been able to compete successfully by being nimble and agile and ahead of the curve in terms of technology and being able to provide the best solutions at the right price.”

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