Starlink Connectivity Is A ‘Game Changer’ For Launch Carrier
Launch carrier JSX has seen a measurable improvement in passenger satisfaction since it introduced SpaceX’s Starlink inflight connectivity system in late 2022, says an executive with the public charter operator.
“It’s a game-changer,” Ben Kaufman, JSX director of marketing and communications, told BCA. “The number one complaint we got from our customers [in the past] was a lack of connectivity ... and it’s become one of our strengths.”
Founded in 2016, Dallas-based JSX serves 22 destinations in the U.S. and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, flying under U.S. Department of Transportation Part 380 public charter and FAA Part 135 operating regulations. The “semi-private” carrier plans to install terminals for Starlink, SpaceX’s low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite broadband network, across 77 converted Embraer ERJ135/145 regional jets.
JSX lays claim to being the first air carrier to install and offer Starlink Ku-band LEO service, which has also been selected by Hawaiian Airlines, airBaltic and Japanese low-cost carrier Zipair. SpaceX has said that supplemental type certifications are being developed to fit Starlink on Gulfstream, Dassault, Bombardier, Beechcraft and Cessna business jets.
As of June, JSX had installed the system across its active fleet of 44 Embraers and was rolling out newly refurbished, 30-seat jets at a rate of about one per month. Plans call for all jets to have Starlink, Kaufman said during the recent NATA Air Charter Summit.
“We were the first air carrier in the world to order Starlink, then the first to certify it, and now the first to complete fleetwide installation,” Kaufman said. “The retrofit program to get the existing fleet equipped with Starlink has been completed, so as these [new] airplanes are getting refurbished to enter service with JSX, they will get Starlink installed as part of that refurbishment process.”
Revitalized Regional Jets
JSX entered into an agreement with United Airlines last year to acquire 54 ERJ145s—50-seat regional airliners that ended commercial service for United Express partner CommuteAir after starting life as Chautauqua Airlines and ExpressJet aircraft. Stored in Kingman, Arizona, the aircraft cycle through partner MRO facilities in Jacksonville, Florida, or Great Falls, Montana, where they are stripped down and reconfigured for 30-seat cabins with one seat on either side of the aisle. JSX removes the original overhead bins and installs LED lighting, HEPA air filters and sound dampening.
“Everyone benefits from more space and our average legroom on this aircraft is about 36 in. of pitch,” Kaufman said. “There’s a lot of thoughtful work that goes into completely revitalizing these airplanes because some of them have been parked in the desert for several years but at the end of the day, they have an incredible amount of useable life in them.”
The overhaul process takes about 90 days but installing Starlink’s top-mounted Aero Terminal, which is founded on an electronically steered phased array antenna, with power supply, wireless access points and harnesses, takes just eight hours, Kaufman said.
“Our CEO would say, when it comes to finding a Wi-Fi provider, he ‘kissed a lot of frogs,’” he related. “One of the most difficult things about finding a Wi-Fi solution is the wiring is so complex you essentially have to strip the aircraft down to run these wires and even on a smaller jet like the Embraer 145, that task can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per airplane.”
Ease of installation is a driver that favors Starlink, Kaufman said. “With the Starlink system, each airplane gets installed in eight hours,” he explained. “You have a very flat dish on top and a simple wiring structure. That was one of the reasons we could retrofit the airplane so quickly. We could do two to four [aircraft] in a night with SpaceX’s installation team, at six to eight hours per airplane start-to-finish.”
Perhaps more important is the public-facing aspect of Starlink: its performance. The service is complementary on JSX, which is permitted by the FAA to allow passenger use of video telephony applications such as FaceTime and Zoom, Kaufman said. Early feedback has been good, with users reporting high download speeds and low latency.
Since it installed Starlink across its active fleet, JSX has seen its Net Promoter Score (NPS), a customer experience metric used in the airline industry, improve by four points. The NPS for the industry overall is 27; JSX’s is 76, Kaufman said.
“If I have something that I really need to get done for work, I go take an airplane for a joyride to Austin and back or Houston and back because the Wi-Fi is that good,” he said.