-T / T / +T | Comment(s)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

In-Flight Entertainment

Airlines are moving beyond traditional in-flight entertainment systems to include airborne connectivity capabilities

By James Ramsey

Just a few years ago, in-flight entertainment (IFE) meant just that entertaining passengers during flights. But since then the focus has shifted from entertainment to business and information platforms that provide services and allow passengers to stay connected while in flight.

“The idea is to connect the pleasure of flying with the business of flying, and now you have a better proposition for the passenger and more opportunities for the airline to recover its cost and increase revenues,” said Neil James, executive director of sales and product for Panasonic Avionics, based in Lake Forest, Calif.

During a critical fuel-cost era, airlines want systems that are lighter weight, more compact and use less power. Airlines want IFE systems that cost less to buy and maintain but at the same time offer their passengers the maximum convenience, comfort and enjoyment.

Only two years ago, passenger surveys showed the important IFE feature was connectivity allowing passengers to use their own personal communications devices onboard. Since then, virtually every airline operating in the United States today has added this feature or plans to add this feature to new system installs.

“I would not rely on any one particular technology or feature to say that’s the most important. It’s not just connectivity, or lighter weight or HD-quality images it’s all those features and functions in a package,” said Jeff Sare, vice president of product and commercial for Thales In-flight Entertainment and Connectivity business, based in Irvine, Calif. “Connectivity is what makes them [IFE systems] truly useful. Any IFE system that is not connected in the very near future will go the way of the dinosaur.”

Many airlines, instead of buying new IFE systems, are upgrading their current systems with these connectivity features. (It reportedly costs an airline about $2 million to $5 million per plane for seatback LCD monitors and an embedded IFE system.) Some airlines are helping pay for these IFE upgrades by charging passengers for on-demand entertainment, increasing ticket prices or advertising.

Integrated IFE systems ones that incorporate both entertainment and connectivity are attractive to airlines. United Airlines, for example, is upgrading the IFE systems on its international and select domestic wide-body fleet. The project, which is more than half-way completed, calls for the Panasonic eX2 audio-video on-demand (AVOD) systems to be installed on its Boeing 777 fleet. These systems include, in the Premium cabins, connectivity that allows passengers the option to plug-in personal devices.

United’s B767s and B747s have a hybrid Panasonic eFX system in Economy. Continental’s B757s also have Panasonic’s eFX system. While current deliveries are limited to the Panasonic eX2, the new eX3 system and others would be considered as the airline evaluates all systems for new orders, according to John Yeng, product marketing director for United.

Panasonic’s new eX3 in-seat system monitors “that are so thin they can be inside the seat structure are giving 2 or 3 inches of space back to the passenger when the seat in front of them is being reclined. Further distance between your eye and the screen creates a feeling of space,” James said.

The HD-capable monitors have the latest-generation LCD displays for brightness and contrast and use capacitive touch-screen controls that respond in a similar way to those experienced in iPads, tablets and PCs.

The eX3 will require 25 percent less power and reduce weight by 39 percent by using absolute minimal architecture and taking as much wire out of the seats as possible, James said.

“We’ve been able to put lots of functionality into fewer boxes we no longer have a separate PCU [passenger control unit] or a separate USB jack. And the viewing angles are great, so you don’t need the weight of a tilt mechanism. So in Economy [class] we have been able to take 4 or 5 pounds out of every seat. And by getting rid of those LRUs [line replaceable units], we have significantly reduced maintenance costs.”

Although the full eX3 system will not be delivered until 2013, its displays are currently being delivered to Delta Airlines for retrofit on its Boeing 747s.

Panasonic’s eX2 is going on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and will be on launch-customer All-Nippon Airways’ 787s when they are delivered later this year. But new eX3s may go on later Boeing deliveries.

The eX3 system will have improved connectivity for passenger personal devices via Panasonic’s Global Communications Services (GCS) network.

“As the world moves forward the ‘digital natives’ expect more and more connectivity. We can provide that through the seatback IFE system, people can log into Facebook or Twitter or through our GCS they can do that with their cell phones, or their PDA or tablet on board,” James said.

Single-Aisle Market

Rockwell Collins has put its IFE focus on the single-aisle market. “That’s proven to be a great strategy when you look at all the single-aisle airplanes that are being ordered throughout the world,” said J.D. Pauley, director of product development for single aisle IFE, citing the July announcement of American Airlines order of 460 new narrowbodies from Boeing and Airbus.

Rockwell Collins’ latest IFE entry in the single-aisle market is its second-generation dPAVES (digital programmable audio video entertainment) system that borrows from technology used in its system for the bizjet market. The system features a HD-capable media server and a touch panel for flight attendants. The media server is capable of outputting both analog (for Airbus) and digital (for Boeing).

Rockwell Collins completed its first installation of the second-generation overhead monitors in June on a newly designed 737 Boeing Sky Interior for the Chinese carrier Shandong.

“The interior has new (overhead) baggage bins allowing us to put in a larger display our older product used to be a 10-inch, 4x3 monitor and we’ve grown that to a 12-inch diagonal, 16x9 monitor.”

Tibet Airlines was Rockwell Collins’ first Airbus customer for the second generation system with an order for nine airplanes and an option for nine more. In total, eight customers have signed up to date, including China Eastern, Ethiopian, Pegasus, Royal Air Maroc and TransAvia.

Rockwell Collins is working on a new product for the single- aisle market, this time looking at in-seat video. It was planning a “formal market release” on this new development at the Aircraft Passenger Experience Show in September. Its new system will have the capability for passengers to connect their personal devices and will include a Wi-Fi installation.

Thales AVANT

Thales TopSeries AVANT entertainment and connectivity system, introduced in April, is billed as a “smart video display unit,” with HD-capable AVOD, a flight progress bar, personal electronic device interface and connectivity portal. It is expected to be ready in the 2013-14 time frame and Thales said it has signed a contract recently with a major A350 customer.

The system reduces weight and power by 30 percent from the earlier Thales TopSeries system. It includes solid state entertainment servers, offering up to 1 TB capacity with streaming video to 150 passengers. No passenger control units are required at the seat, which accommodates a credit card reader along with passenger’s personal devices.

“It will have fewer LRUs, continued consolidation in parts, and improvements in processor speeds,” Sare said. “We’ve gone from LTD to LED backlit touch- screen displays and have progressed from systems that used to weigh a ton on an airplane to a few hundred pounds.”

Thales is using fiber-optics at this time, but is leveraging wireless communications and different software operating systems, both its traditional Linux system and an Android operating system, to open the platform up as much as possible.

The TopSeries is still being offered in different versions. It has been on Airbus and Boeing aircraft as TopSeries I-5000. When Boeing’s 787 came along as an all-digital aircraft, modifications were made to the system now designated I-8000, which has similar performance to the earlier version with less weight and power requirements. A TopSeries I-8000 system “should be flying on a 787 this year as quickly as they can deliver one of our customer’s 787s,” Sare said.

Thales said it is offering a SwiftBroadband voice and data system, supported by three global Inmarsat satellites. It has a launch customer for that system on a 787, with a number of customers flying that satcom unit in regional jetliners, and in A320s in Europe, Sare said.

“Our product strategy moving forward will be to move to Ka-band as soon as the satellite industry is able to do that. … That gives you a lot more bandwidth and lower data cost,” he said. Ka-band satellites are expected to be available in 2014.

Row 44, based in Westlake Village, Calif., is providing a “broadband entertainment platform” delivered by satellite to the aircraft market in North America and the European Union.

The company plans to expand its market to carriers flying over the Atlantic and to additional regions around the world in the next two years, said Howard Lefkowitz, Row44’s chief commercial officer.

Unlike other IFE systems, Row 44’s offering does not involve in-seat or overhead displays. Instead it relies on airline passengers using their personal devices to view entertainment and information.

“We call it an IFP [in-flight portal] which people see when they open their devices, which might be laptop, iPhone, iPad or Tablet,” said Lefkowitz.

Row 44’s current customers are Southwest Airlines, with its 737 fleet, in the United States and Norwegian Air Shuttle in Europe. While currently limited to use in single-aisle aircraft, the product can be used for wide-body aircraft later, he said.

“We equip everything from the satellite antenna, infrastructure components, the Wi-Fi in the aircraft, the servers on board, the server management unit, and through those systems we deliver, manage and maintain the content and capabilities within the plane — not only from the customer perspective but also those kind of things the airlines have use for,” Lefkowitz said.

Using Ku-band satellites (in a relationship with Hughes), bandwidth can be broadened by turning on more transponders, “providing virtually unlimited bandwidth,” Lefkowitz said. The modem goes to 56 kilobits now, but can go up to 30 megabits, he said.

“It’s not about IFE or IFE&C. It’s about a broadband entertainment platform. So what do airlines need? They need multiple revenue streams and to have happy customers and get more of them. And both business and leisure passengers want to be entertained,” he said.

“We are providing the most robust IFE there is without all the capital expense, without all the ongoing weight. We give them the servers and the connectivity using their own personal devices.”

Live chat by BoldChat