Business & GA, Commercial

Airshow — No Longer a Single-Product IFE Provider

By Kimberly Shepherd | June 1, 2001
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In this age of computer technology, demand for in-flight entertainment, Internet, e-mail and wireless capability is on the rise. Airshow Inc. is busily working on solutions to make it all possible. The company has been providing passenger flight information systems since 1980, and in the last five to six years, Airshow has grown from a single-product company to one that provides total cabin systems and content solutions for business and air transport aircraft.

Up-to-the minute news, sports and weather, as well as gate information and customized audio-video entertainment, are all made possible through systems such as the Airshow 420, Airshow RAD (random access device), and the ACE (Airshow configuration editor). The Airshow Network Operations Center in Tustin, Calif., provides 24-hour support for the systems and products.

The trend is to bring IT specialists into the cabin to "network" computers together, run office software, and interface systems through a local area network (LAN). Cabin computers now have the capability to communicate, send and receive e-mail, and run the printer off of a file server. Starting to sound more like an office than an avionics environment? That’s exactly how Airshow views it.

Avionics Magazine interviews Airshow President Dennis Ferguson and Marketing Vice President Skip Feher for a top-level perspective in cabin systems, A to Z.

Avionics Magazine: What current trends in cabin systems are you now involved in?

Ferguson: We’re taking the office environment and moving it into the world of avionics. We’re really acting as a systems integrator, that is, taking what you would normally see in an office environment and making it work in an airplane.

Feher: Because of that, we’re reorganizing the functions of Airshow, so that we have a clear, three-fold approach. We’re developing an internal group that focuses on applications and content. We have the on-board systems or the platforms that support those applications, and thirdly, a communications segment for the cabin and the cockpit. And we’re continuing to focus in that area of communications to bring high-speed links and greater bandwidth capability.

Avionics Magazine: How did your Airshow Network come about?

Ferguson: With Airshow Network, we wanted to deliver Doppler weather radar graphics to the cockpit, and we wanted to deliver real-time news and financial information to the CEO in the cabin.

Feher: As opposed to more of an avionics hardware mentality, we started off with what we had to get done, which was to put Doppler in the front-end and build the systems and communications network to make it happen.

Avionics Magazine: Whom did you work with on that project?

Ferguson: It was a joint development in terms of working with some of the telecommunications providers like the satcom folks, Magnastar and AT&T. But aside from that, it was pretty much all done in-house. We went through a very, very long and very steep learning curve. One of our core competencies now is understanding and managing narrow-bandwidth links that really weren’t designed for data applications, and being able to reliably and efficiently push information through those links.

We have proprietary data compression technology and packet data transfer modes to do that. That background is what led us up into our most recent offering to GA [general aviation], which is our Airshow Mail product. This actually rides on a brand new platform, which is our first entry into the cabin file server market. Airshow Mail was developed to make the mail interface transparent to the user. The Airshow link features stop-drop, resume, data compression, packet data, and a bunch of other things.

Our first two installations were both in a wireless environment, so people could bring their wireless laptops on the airplane and use the [IEEE] 802.11 interface. Just open up the laptop and log on to the cabin file server without plugging anything in, to send and retrieve e-mail.

Avionics Magazine: How fast is this interface?

Ferguson: The 802.11 interface is up to 11 megabits per second [Mbits/sec]. But obviously the air-to-ground link is still a fairly slow baud rate, and that’s where we do all the optimization.

Avionics Magazine: How long does the whole sending/receiving process take?

Feher: It depends on the file size. Multiple people in the airplane can log on to this file server. That’s the advantage of having a file server on the airplane, being able to share files, being able to hook up to a common printer, or being able to simultaneously send or receive e-mail.

The server might collect six or seven e-mails from different passengers every 20 or 30 minutes, then the cabin file server will automatically dial into our Network Operations Center, [in California] and all the mail will go there, where we’ve got train-latched modems and mirrored file servers.

Once an e-mail reaches the Center, it goes out over the Internet and the server simultaneously collects the e-mails waiting for those clients on the airplane. The time it takes [to send or receive] really depends on how many messages are going down or coming up.

Messages from the ground could take 15 minutes or five minutes. The idea is that they’re not sitting there waiting for this thing to crank messages down at 2400 baud or 9600 baud.

Avionics Magazine: Is this file server currently offered only to corporate aircraft?

Ferguson: Right now, yes. There are special challenges that we have to overcome being in an airplane environment and working with telephones on aircraft. This adds value because it manages the data link, handles dropped calls, compression, and the special environment of working with digital telephones and protocols.

Avionics Magazine: When did you launch this e-mail/file server system?

Ferguson: We certified and delivered our first one in September/October [2000]. The product is now in production for sales.

Avionics Magazine: Will the system eventually enter the air transport market?

Feher: We’d definitely like to extend into the air transport market [however] business aviation has proven to be a great proving ground for our products.

Ferguson: The issue for an airline is that a product has to pay for itself. The person flying in the seat is paying to ride in that airplane to go from point A to point B. In corporate [aircraft], the person owns the aircraft, this is a personal office. He’s not only going from point A to point B, but also doing business.

Avionics Magazine: Of course, the business customer wants more than e-mail. What is included in your package for corporate aircraft ?

Feher: We’re moving towards a fully integrated approach in our next-generation cabin management system–audio/video distribution and switch technology and controllers, that we have in general aviation. This is not an e-mail box; this is a full-up file server. The first application out of the chute is a mail application to facilitate the sending and receiving of e-mail on the airplane. A number of additional applications will follow shortly.

Ferguson: Going back to the network, the first sales of that product were justified because it had a moving map for the passenger and Doppler radar in the front end of the airplane. We later added the news services, financial information, weather and sports scores. A whole host of things were added to the system as we upgraded its capabilities. The value proposition was originally to purchase it for the Doppler radar in the front end, but all this other value came along as a service capability.

Avionics Magazine: Have you added any other benefits since last fall?

Ferguson: We’ve added Bloomberg and other financial services, and more news variances. We’re probably stretching the bandwidth; there’s going to be a limit to how much further we can add graphics and pictures to the service, but we are looking to get more bandwidth to the airplane. The other thing that we’ve done in the airline market is look at different languages, different news services for different regions of the world.

Avionics Magazine: Will the capabilities vary as an aircraft flies from one country to another?

Feher: In general aviation, we provide full, customized content for the customers. We also customize stock portfolios.

We are sourcing international content now. We’ve got some major international airlines that have announced their intentions to add Airshow Network, and there will be some regional-specific content that’s in the native language.

Ferguson: In the case of the corporate world, those that are U.S. operators, they want to see the Bloomberg financials, or the Dow Jones or the Wall Street Journal. It doesn’t matter if they’re in Asia, Europe or the U.S. They still want this information.

Avionics Magazine: Is your file server with e-mail capability your latest product?

Ferguson: Yes, the cabin file server is, with integration of the cabin systems. And we’re also moving more into the retrofit market. A lot of our products have been going into new aircraft, OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], but there’s a big market developing in the refurbing of 15- to 20-year-old airplanes.

Avionics Magazine: When did you enter into the retrofit area?

Ferguson: We’re just getting into that now.

Feher: We have prestocked [certain] systems on our shelves. We can ship right away–versus an OEM–totally custom installation of switches and controllers that are sometimes 16- or 18-week lead times.

One of our product offerings is our displays product line. We’re actually in the business of packaging our own LCDs [liquid crystal displays], providing a variety of sizes for OEMs and mod centers.

Avionics Magazine: Is this an exclusive technology?

Feher: It’s exclusive for us, for our market. There are a lot of [owners of] airplanes that would like to have Airshow Network, but if they don’t have a display to show it on, well then it’s not creating a lot of value.

Ferguson: To explain what this technology does, the LCD screen acts like a filter. The light source comes through this filter. The more light that comes through, the lower the power needed on the display to get a bright image.

This new technology manages the reflectivity of the ambient light and the sunlight coming through the window. It absorbs the outside light so that you don’t see the reflection, you just see the display coming through. We can keep the power of the backlight down and let the display run cooler.

Avionics Magazine: Are we talking about a whole line of displays?

Feher: Yes, it’s a whole line. Right now we just call them Airshow displays, but we’re looking at some rebranding.

Ferguson: We’re looking at single-aisle airline aircraft that would have the displays down the center line or underneath the bag bins. We’re even looking at the regional jets that are competing with the larger airlines. To validate these in regional jets, we’re looking at promotional and informative information, like connecting gate information, headline news and financial information.

Feher: American Airlines has partnered with us in providing this gate information capability. Not only do we put connecting gate information on the screens, similar to what you see in the terminals, but our system has some intelligence built in because it’s communicating with the cockpit avionics, so it knows the [aircraft’s] destination automatically. The passengers get a graphic not only of the terminal, but the gate with their airplane.

Avionics Magazine: Where does this gate information come from?

Feher: The Airshow 420 is the box that manages the gate information and we get that information through the cockpit’s ACARS [airborne communications addressing and reporting system]. Then we marry that information with our own internal graphics. It’s a completely automated, hands-off product.

Ferguson: One place where this is really being used effectively is on the Delta Shuttle, where they’re using the Airshow 420. They’re not using the data link capability, but it’s there if they want to in the future.

Avionics Magazine: It’s the software in the 420 that’s controlling the graphics, correct? So in the future, you can add other capabilities that the passengers may be interested in?

Feher: Yes, and we’re looking at cabin file server technology longer-term to perhaps replace the 420. American Airlines is providing connecting gate information, and we’re the enabling technology for American.

Avionics Magazine: Tell us about your relationship with AirCell.

Feher: We made an equity investment in AirCell last September. We made the investment to tell the market that we believe in their technology and we wanted to embrace that for use with our Airshow Network and connectivity products. Clearly it’s not the complete solution...but all that is moving forward.

We are not promoting the AirCell interface for connectivity with Airshow Network yet, not until the network is a little bit further along. We don’t want to promote something that’s only usable in certain parts of the country. Around mid-year we’ll reach that critical mass and have the kinds of connectivity that we want. We’ll be having some special promotions and packaging some AirCell phones with Airshow Network.

Avionics Magazine: In your agreement with AirCell, who provides what?

Feher: We’re providing the content, all the content in terms of Airshow Network, and what AirCell provides is the enabling technology for the connectivity, which is their hardware. However, we negotiated an exclusive reseller agreement with them so that we are the exclusive reseller of AirCell airtime. With this we can manage connectivity. We can look at various types of pricing packages, and if we choose, we could design based on a subscription service that includes connectivity for a number of minutes.

We can consolidate it all through a one-stop shop. Not just telephony charges, but also subscriptions, such as to Airshow TV. Moving forward, there are other connectivity options on the horizon that tend to fill in the rest of the gaps. We’re looking at all options to develop other relationships and alliances.

Avionics Magazine: In what other areas are you looking to develop potential partnerships?

Ferguson: Communications. Our objective is to roll [package] things together for the customer and to increase bandwidth. We’re not just interested in voice, we’re really interested in a data connection to the airplane, in higher speeds for processing data and reliable connections for data.

Feher: We have a broad spectrum of companies that we look at for alliances... hardware and software companies included.

Avionics Magazine: What speed would you like to see bandwidth increase to?

Ferguson: We’ve been talking to Ku-band satellite operators about data services, trying to determine at what point it makes economic sense to use a Ku-band satellite transponder for managing data like e-mail, special programming capabilities, etc. That would be the ultimate–enough bandwidth that you could run promotional videos through it. Along the way, we would continue to improve e-mail attachments and send up graphics and video clips attached to news stories. Probably the most demanding next piece would be the ability to run e-mail and attachments to e-mail through the system or do video conferencing. You might be able to do that with 128 K.

Avionics Magazine: Let’s talk about your live TV product and challenges in this area.

Ferguson: We have Airshow TV. There’s a lot of interest in that. The big question is, how do you retrieve TV signals throughout the world? This is a monstrous issue to solve. A couple of factors involved: There aren’t any television satellite services over the water, and secondly, the TV services in different regions of the world have different frequencies and formats. So it’s pretty difficult to design a single system that will reveal and receive TV signals even in these other geographical regions where you can receive TV on the ground.

Avionics Magazine: There’s no solution yet for continuous programming over water?

Ferguson: If you’re in the U.S. watching CNN and you go across the water, you will lose the live satellite feed. We have surveyed the different satellite systems that operate in different regions of the world and there are many different ones that operate in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, Canada and the U.S. We have picked out the ones that are at least within the same band and frequency and operating parameters that our system can receive programming from. From there, we’ve determined in which regions we can get programming and from which satellites, so it’s region-specific and the programming varies depending on the region.

Right now, that’s about the best anybody can do, just because there’s so much variance from one region to another. Plus, the satellites in the different regions of the world operate at different power levels. If you go to the UK, for example, you see big, 2-foot dishes on the sides of buildings, but you can’t put a dish like that on an airplane. Our dish is 11-inches and there’s just not enough signal in the air [in the UK] to work with an 11-inch dish. However, here in the United States where DirecTV has lots of power, we can get that signal just fine.

Avionics Magazine: Don’t you expect that technology to improve over the years?

Feher: Here’s the issue: This whole infrastructure/TV system was designed for the consumer market, and there’s no compelling reason to go from an 18-inch dish on your house to an 11-inch dish. People are just fine with what they have. For dishes to get any smaller, the satellite power will have to be increased, which reduces the life of the satellite and this creates other issues.

Avionics Magazine: In a nutshell, the biggest challenge for live television is...

Ferguson: How do you make it pay [in commercial aircraft]? You watch TV at home either for free or for $20 a month, and then you get into an airplane. Are you willing to shell out $5 or $10 bucks?

Avionics Magazine: And what about programming rights?

Feher: Yes, if you broadcast in a private jet, that’s one thing, but if you broadcast in an airline, now it’s a public forum. As soon as you start talking about broadcasting television programming in an airline, attorneys start jumping all over the place.

As you know, JetBlue has launched a TV service that’s on a trial basis with DirecTV, which has negotiated with the programmers. This is simply a trial-basis. It’s all free and it’s okay for now.

Then there’s the issue of content. Airlines do not want a news story to suddenly break in and show a sister aircraft that has just crashed. So, custom programming would be needed for a number of airplanes. For example, CNN in the airports is "scrubbed" content.

Ferguson: The other thing that’s interesting is you don’t have the start and stop times coordinated in sync with airplane schedules. If you only catch half of a program or sports event, what’s the value of that? It would be just as well, and cheaper, to put a tape/CD player on the plane.

Avionics Magazine: Finally, what would you consider the hotspot to watch in IFE?

Ferguson: It’s all about sending [data] bits through the air. There are a lot of things going on around that, like cabin file servers. But the real exciting thing that’s going to take place is being able to send more data bits.

Feher: Real-time exchange technology... total systems/total solutions approach.

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