Connectivity continues to be a hot trend in avionics, as ever more pilots and passengers search for a solution that allows in-flight messaging and even phone calls. There are a number of impressive options for large business jets, with high-speed internet connections delivered by satellite or ground-based networks. Unfortunately, most of these systems cost over $100,000, require large antennas, and often cost over $5,000/month in data fees. These three issues make them impractical for piston and light turbine airplanes.
There are some options at the other end of the spectrum, including the Iridium Go and Garmin’s inReach communicator. We’ve flown with both and found some things to like, but there are two main limitations. First, they are sensitive to antenna placement in the cockpit: without a clear view of the sky, satellite reception is inconsistent. Second, many portable devices work on a “party line” system, where every pilot and passenger shares a messaging account. This can be frustrating if two passengers want to have private conversations with people on the ground.
A new option was recently introduced that attempts to bridge this gap: AirText. This system is FAA-approved and permanently-installed, so it benefits from a roof-mounted antenna for reliable reception. The app also allows up to 16 users to connect at any one time, each with private messaging. While it’s significantly more expensive than the portable options, it is much less than the business jet systems and has affordable data plans.
We’ve been flying with AirText for over 5 months now, and have grown to really appreciate its design and features. It’s not for every airplane, but for pilots looking for a reliable and relatively affordable in-flight connectivity solution, it’s worth considering.
AirText is available in two main versions: AirText for text messages and AirText+ for text messages plus voice calls. Both share the same hardware design, which includes a one pound metal case and two small antennas. This can be installed almost anywhere (we’ve even heard of some being installed inside cabinets to hide the box), and simply requires a connection to the aircraft’s electrical system and the roof-mounted antenna. AirText will work with a portable, hockey puck-style Iridium antenna, but we recommend the external antenna for best performance.
Once the device is installed, simply connect your mobile device to it via Bluetooth (the Settings app on an iPad or iPhone). Up to 16 devices can be connected at once, using Bluetooth Low Energy. This makes it handy for charter airplanes where many different passengers may be using it. Like most in-flight connectivity solutions, users must download an app to enable communications, which is free. Once this is downloaded, open the AirText app and you’re ready to communicate.
AirText uses the Iridium satellite network, like the Garmin inReach, so coverage is truly global. You can send and receive messages anywhere on Earth, and from any altitude. Iridium is very slow compared to full internet systems, but as you can see below, it still supports a number of useful features.
The most popular feature will surely be text messaging. Open the AirText app and choose the first tab, labeled Messages. This allows you to initiate and respond to text messages, and connects to your contacts list for auto-fill functionality. It works just the way you would expect, with the standard 140 character limitation. As mentioned above, one of the key advantages of AirText is that each app user can send messages without the rest of the airplane reading them.
This is a completely two-way system, so recipients can quickly reply to your message from their native messaging app – there’s no need for them to download anything special. When receiving text messages, your phone will display a notification just like a normal text message, except it will come from AirText. We even received notifications on an Apple Watch in flight.
Since you’re communicating through the Iridium satellite system, your messages actually come from a different phone number (the Iridium number tied to the AirText box). This can cause some confusion for first time message recipients, so we recommend sharing the Iridium phone number before flight. This will allow frequent contacts to associate that number with your contact (“Steve’s AirText,” for example).
Beyond that tip, though, AirText has thought of an innovative solution to this “two phone number” issue.
The AirText app allows you to set up a list of favorite contacts. Once this list is created (spouse, close friends, dispatcher, chief pilot, etc.), go to the Settings tab in the app and turn on the “Always Notify Favorites” feature.
This will automatically send a message to your favorites when your airplane takes off, advising them to use your AirText phone number. A similar message is sent when you land. This is a great reminder, and the process is well thought out.
Beyond text messaging, AirText offers a few other features that work within the confines of Iridium’s low bandwidth. One is the WX Request feature, which allows pilots to get METARs and TAFs for any airport in the world. While this may not be a major help for US pilots (where ADS-B and SiriusXM weather receivers are common), it’s a nice benefit for pilots outside the US. Want an updated METAR for Iceland when you’re over the North Atlantic? Simply type in the four letter identifier for the airport and you will receive the METAR or TAF as a reply.
A relatively new feature also allows AirText users to contact FBOs while in flight. This is a useful way to alert your destination FBO of your ETA, and make any requests for services. We’ve found this to be pretty handy, since a text message is less likely to be misunderstood (was that with or without Prist?). So far FBO Link is only available at a handful of airports, but it’s an intriguing concept to watch.
The AirText+ unit enables voice calling in addition to text messages. This works by holding your mobile phone to your ear, but a better option is to pair the AirText with your headset or audio panel. To do this, go to the Keypad tab in the app, then tap the headset icon in the lower right corner. Now you’ll be able to talk while using the noise-canceling benefits of your headset. We’ve used it multiple times and can confirm it works quite well.
You can also receive inbound phone calls, which are answered from your mobile phone.
Data plans cost $300/year, which includes 1000 text messages. Beyond that, messages cost five cents each. Voice calls on the AirText+ cost $1.60/minute, and use a prepaid Iridium sim card so there is no fixed monthly cost. The number of minutes remaining on your prepaid card are announced at the beginning of each call, so it’s easy to keep track of your current status.