Business & GA, Commercial

The Need to Remedy IFE Support

By James W. Ramsey | October 1, 2000
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They may disagree on market share and on the relative merits of each other’s systems, but if there is one thing that the three in-flight entertainment (IFE) suppliers agree on it is the importance of reliability and supportability of their systems. And lest the suppliers lose focus of these two factors, their customers, the airlines, will be quick to render clear the need to keep their customers, the traveling public, happy with IFE equipment that works. That became obvious from the first part of our coverage of IFE reliability and supportability, in last month’s issue.

The Top Priority

Sextant In-Flight Systems, Matsushita Avionics Systems Corp., and Rockwell Collins Passenger Systems all admit there were problems in this arena. But they maintain that they have been, and are, making significant progress in supporting their IFE products.

"When we became Sextant In-Flight Systems [after Sextant acquired B/E Aerospace In-Flight Entertainment Group], we understood the industry had been setting expectations that were hard to meet," says Hank Evers, Sextant In-Flight Systems’ vice president sales and marketing. "There’s still skepticism among airline customers as to what IFE purveyors can really deliver.

"Every airline wants functionality–they want all kinds of great things–and they all want good prices," he adds. "But when you ask what is the most important element in their decision-making, you find reliability slides right to the top." Evers believes the airlines’ engineering/operations groups, which handle line maintenance, now have a much stronger voice in the decision-making process, which in the past was more marketing oriented. Why is this?

"Because they have been burned. It has cost [the airlines] money," Evers explains. "Reliability and maintainability are not just nice to have. They impact the passenger and his satisfaction, and that impacts the bottom line of the airline."

The top executive of another major avionics firm that moved into the IFE business, Rockwell Collins, agrees. "When we made our move into the market [in December 1997], we knew it had been underserved from a reliability and supportability standpoint," says Tommy Dodson, vice president-program management, Rockwell Collins. "But we felt we could bring our core competencies as a major cockpit avionics supplier, coupled with our worldwide support structure, especially from a bench and shop standpoint, to the IFE market."

And the third IFE supplier, Matsushita, concurs. "IFE systems are not flight critical," says Gerald Betts, Matsushita’s general manager-maintenance services, "but they are very passenger sensitive."

Capitalizing on Simplicity

Maintenance and reliability of IFE systems are so important that carriers like United Airlines are willing to scale back on offering new features, focusing first on reliability. After problems encountered with an earlier system introduced in 1995, United chose Sextant’s venerable d2000 distributed in-seat video system. Sextant claims the d2000 has achieved close to a 99.9% availability rate. The basic system delivers 10 video and 30 audio channels.

"The premise is that a more complex system is more susceptible to problems," says Evers. "With a simpler system, it is easier to ensure high reliability. The d2000, which has been sold and installed for at least five years, is very simple and very reliable–but we are continuing to enhance it." Improvements to the basic system have included enlarging the video display units (VDUs) and installing an audio system that blocks out aircraft noise.

With United’s order last November to retrofit 16 Boeing 777s with the system, Sextant boasts of having the industry’s largest in-seat video installation base with any single customer. Its systems are either installed or on order for 112 United widebodies. British Airways, Air France, and KLM also are d2000 customers.

While admitting that the systems are more complex, Sextant has moved into the popular video-on-demand (VOD) market. "We installed the very first VOD on a British Airways widebody in 1996, and since then have invested millions of dollars in enhancements and improvements to the overall architecture and specific LRUs [line replaceable units]," Evers says.

Sextant’s M series flies on five Japan Airlines 747s, which were fitted with the systems at Boeing. Last year, Sextant retrofitted the five aircraft with second-generation VOD servers that, Evers says, improved reliability and reduced LRU space and weight requirements by 30%.

Applying ILS

Evers credits Sextant’s avionics experience in designing systems with efficient backbone architecture, which allow upgradability and LRUs that meet reliability and maintainability targets. "We learned a whole lot in a little over a year since we became Sextant," he says.

"In addition, Sextant added ILS [integrated logistics support], something that didn’t exist in the previous organization," Evers adds. With ILS, "reliability and maintainability [R&M] specialists are involved in the design phase, and R&M is literally incorporated in the LRUs."

Built-in-test (BIT) equipment is also an important part of the R&M equation, he adds. Being part of an avionics giant, Evers feels, is a big advantage, because the company now can rely on more than 800 Thomson-CSF Sextant product support specialists in the field. "Integrating our organization with theirs allows us to provide what the airlines are looking for–everything from system design and installation to ‘meet and greet�’ line maintenance."

Sextant offers a turnkey package for its Live TV package installed on the aircraft of several start-up carriers, Jet Blue and Legend Air. Sextant and Harris Corp. jointly own Live TV, which uses Direct TV as the content provider. With these systems, Evers says BIT reporting displayed on the aircraft’s cabin management terminal allows technicians to see the status of systems in each seat and determine which LRU is failing. The reporting identifies problems as minute as failure of a headphone jack.

What Airlines Really Want

Why is the airline industry somewhat disgruntled and impatient with IFE systems? "They really want VOD," Evers says. "And they want reliability. Ours is the best, at 99%. But they really need, and what they are working towards is improving that to at least 99.5% and then, like the d2000, 99.9%. That has got to be the goal.

In the near future, Evers sees IFE built-in test reporting being sent via the server to the ground so that maintenance crews will be prepared when the aircraft lands.

Making TES Better

Rockwell Collins also relies on a relatively new, but proven, product in its total entertainment system (TES) for widebody aircraft. It has done so since entering the IFE market some three years ago, when it acquired Hughes Avicom.

Hughes designed TES, but Rockwell Collins applied its considerable expertise to make "significant" improvements, including hardware and software upgrades, over the last 28 months," according to Dodson. The improvements, he adds, includes extensive testing and making the system robust.

Another factor in improving the reliability of Rockwell Collins IFE products has been the use of the manufacturer’s extensive field service organization. It encompasses 50 service centers throughout the world.

Dodson says that in the "biggest measurement of ability to maintain aircraft–dispatch availability–the requirements in the marketplace range from 99% to 99.5%. In our turnkey service contracts, during the recent reporting period, we scored in excess of 99.5%."

Rockwell has turnkey contracts with four major airline customers, which in turn receive on-board line maintenance service, bench and shop support, and spares management. "Customers pay a rate per [aircraft] tail and don’t have to handle line maintenance [of IFE equipment] or ensure the right hardware at the right places," Dodson says. The company provides contract customers a guarantee–generally about 99% dispatch reliability, Dodson says.

On-board maintenance is new to Rockwell Collins, as well as to the other IFE providers, because the airlines themselves have been performing avionics maintenance. But now, during short turnaround times, a Rockwell team is on-board the plane, focusing on the IFE maintenance side.

"They [airline maintenance technicians] don’t have to make the call as to whether to fix something in the cockpit or in the cabin," says Dodson, adding that the technicians are now free to concentrate on the cockpit.

This service results in higher reliability rates, Dodson maintains. "Sometimes it gets a little hard to prove [such rates] if we are not doing a complete turnkey service," he adds. "But we are confident that we can show customers that if they buy our service, they will be buying better dispatch performance."

"We will continue to improve," says Dodson, who admits to earlier problems of IFE equipment reliability and parts shortages. "We don’t have all the answers, but if you are dispatching in excess of 99.5%, you’re getting pretty close to being there."

An Initial Delivery

Rockwell Collins said a year ago that its basic TES distributed system could be "easily upgraded" to video-on-demand and that this change would require no change of wiring or seat electronics. The company’s VOD was delivered in July to Airbus Industrie, which is installing the system on aircraft going to Lan Chile airline.

Rockwell Collins is somewhat late in entering the VOD market, and Dodson gives the impression that the prologation was delibrate. "Some people trying to get into the marketplace have experienced some reliability issues," he says. "We have not forced [VOD] into the marketplace. We’re doing robust, thorough system level testing before introducing it."

Regarding spare parts provisioning, Dodson admits that it has been a problem in the past but less so today. "When an airline buys full service from us, this is our problem to ensure you have a pipeline of spare parts around the world for all customers," he says. "We’re not deferring many seats because of a lack of spares."

Rockwell’s narrow (or standard)-body retractable IFE systems are somewhat easier to maintain than the widebody systems, Dodson claims. "They are mostly overhead and don’t have the in-seat issues that come into play on widebodies."

With the Sony Trans Com acquisition, a key issue facing Rockwell Collins will be deciding whether to move forward with its TES widebody system enhancements or concentrate on Sony’s Passport system, which features audio-video on demand (AVOD), according to an industry source. Air Canada uses Passport on its A340 and A330 aircraft, as does USAirways and South African Airways. Sony also produces its Paves overhead distributed IFE systems for narrowbody aircraft.

Three Levels of Service

Industry market leader Matsushita also addresses IFE reliability/supportability issues with establishment of its own turnkey maintenance service. Matsushita Maintenance Services (MMS) offers three levels of service:

  • A basic service that includes meeting in-bound flights and performing standard on-board checks of critical functions;
  • A full service that includes preventive checks of on-board service functions at selected customer hub locations; and
  • A turnkey service that includes total maintenance and logistics management.

MMS offers all its contract customers seat availability guarantees of 99% at dispatch, and will pay the airline a penalty payment if that rate is not met. The company claims recent seat availability rates of 99.7%.

MMS says its line maintenance service representatives bring practical avionics experience with them when they join MMS. Generally, they hold an A&P license in the United States. The company also claims to be the only IFE supplier to hold UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) line maintenance certification.

In its third year of operation, MMS crews "turn" about 4,500 widebodies a month, Betts says, which is roughly equivalent to the number United Airlines turns in the same month.

"We perform both line maintenance at the gate and heavy maintenance when the plane is in the hangar overnight or for a week, and provide spares support and other special services," says Betts. These services extend to transporting videos on-board and loading them and training cabin attendants in the systems’ operation.

Twice the Electronics

Matsushita offers IFE maintenance service at 25 major airports throughout the world, with six more planned, which will extend to every continent. The service is growing in popularity, Betts claims, because airlines want high seat availability, but their own maintenance staff is focused on flight critical systems, not on IFE, on a widebody aircraft.

"IFE doubles the electronic content" on the airplane, Betts says, and "it’s not possible for airline technicians to look at aircraft systems and components and still concentrate on telephones, moving map displays and peripherals that are not flight critical, and still get the aircraft away from the gate on time."

Matsushita has been performing maintenance service for its widebody IFE products–the 2000 distributed video system and the 2000E upgraded version–for three years, Betts says. The company has further upgraded the system, and in June announced that Singapore Airlines would install Matsushita’s new interactive seat application, called Ensemble-Plus, on all 69 of its 2000E equipped B747, A340 and B777 aircraft.

Matsushita has delayed introduction of its new 3000 system; it provides digital AVOD and was expected to be operational on aircraft in the second quarter of this year. Air Canada has expressed interest in the 3000, possibly for new Boeing 767 deliveries next year. Matsushita will provide maintenance support for that system when it is introduced, Betts says.

Issue Solved

As for the spares issue, Betts, like his other IFE counterparts, says, "A couple of years ago, there were some issues with spares availability. Most all these issues have been solved."

He adds that Matsushita obtains its spares from several vendors and other Matsushita entities. On a typical "meet and greet" mission, Betts says, one to three IFE technicians would board the aircraft and meet the cabin crew to discuss any issues on the flight just completed. "They would make use of good BIT information and look into our database and also into the aircraft log for any write-ups and then proceed to test a suspect system. Depending on turnaround time, they may do random sampling on some seats or check every seat.

The size of MMS’ staff ranges from three to four at the smaller stations, such as Cleveland and Boston, and 25 to 30 at larger ones, such as London and JFK. Total MMS technical staff is about 200, with additional people involved in administrative and clerical jobs.

Beyond line maintenance, MMS will support the airline during heavy maintenance C checks, "doing whatever the customer would like us to do," says Betts. "They may want us to stand by in an advisory capacity, or go on-board the plane in the hangar and test systems and remove parts.

"Each airline has its own planning cycle," he adds. "We sit down with the airline and work out the service package that suits them best."

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