Business & GA, Commercial

The Growing Importance Of IFE Support

By by George Marsh | September 1, 2005
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European airlines, like others worldwide, recognize how critical fully operational IFE equipment is to customer satisfaction. We learn, however, that various approaches exist to achieving nearly 100 percent systems reliability.

The palpable disappointment, even anger, of a passenger whose seat-back screen goes blank while those in neighboring seats continue to view theirs symbolizes the need for effective maintenance of in-flight equipment (IFE). Anything less than 100 percent availability will assuredly generate passenger dissatisfaction. Most airlines pragmatically aim for a 98.5 to 99.5 percent operational level. In attempting to meet this target, European operators, like other carriers, must rely on one of three maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) sources:

- The aftermarket support services of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM),

- An independent MRO organization that offers IFE support as a speciality, or

- An in-house department.

"As IFE equipment becomes increasingly complex and because the industry is in such a flux, with equipment changing rapidly, more and more OEM support is needed," says an official with the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA). "The [IFE equipment] manufacturers are trying to make their equipment more user friendly, including in their support. But with equipment that must be up and running all the time, the support effort becomes quite intense."

IFE equipment represents a large investment. On widebody aircraft, according to an industry official, the IFE system is the second most expensive item, behind engines.

Leading legacy carriers have fleet sizes that may justify performing the work in house. There is a clear logic to entrusting IFE work to existing avionics and cabin maintenance departments, where the load can often be borne by engineering capacity already in place, augmented as required. Given the necessary training, most avionics engineers can rapidly assimilate the required IFE skills. And the work that might require disproportionate investment can still be subcontracted, typically to the IFE equipment manufacturers.

But whether support of IFE equipment is in house or through outsourcing also depends significantly on geography. Like the support of cockpit avionics, major European carriers are more likely to choose the in-house option than carriers in other parts of the world, including the United States. Avionics Magazine, therefore, examines the varied IFE support activity at several major European airlines.

Lufthansa

Lufthansa provides a prime example of comprehensive in-house IFE support. The carrier entrusts both its line and base (shop) IFE support to Lufthansa Technik, the highly evolved MRO associate that operates largely independently of the airline. Lufthansa Technik treats cabin electronics like any other aircraft electronics, employing its components and avionics departments for IFE maintenance.

IFE equipment, though, is maintained on-condition. The company has maintenance crews called out only if faults are reported. At the line-maintenance level, appropriately licensed avionics engineers and technicians carry out onboard troubleshooting and minor repair, and can then sign the release-for-service documentation.

If there are any faults that these first-line technicians cannot manage--perhaps because the faults are outside the scope of the component maintenance manual (CMM)--Lufthansa Technik can enlist the services of a special maintenance support team. These highly experienced IFE troubleshooters, who can be called in to deal with faults that require a particularly high level of IFE expertise, are available in a two-shift system (morning and afternoon/evening). They are part of a team of 20 to 25 people who work the shift pattern.

Line replaceable units (LRUs) that are found to be faulty are replaced and sent to Lufthansa Technik's dedicated IFE section, part of the components shop at Frankfurt, where some 50 technicians provide a range of cabin equipment MRO services. Approximately a third of these technicians are IFE specialists.

According to Michael Lariviere from Lufthansa Technik's aircraft engineering function, the Frankfurt shop has the capability to repair virtually every part number on the two main equipment types used by Lufthansa--the Panasonic 2000 and the Rockwell Collins eTES. This encompasses all power and control units, seat boxes, head-end equipment, wiring and other associated items. On occasion, however, it is more expedient to send LRUs to the repair facilities of the respective OEMs.

Full IFE inspections and overhauls take place at Lufthansa Technik's major engineering base at Hamburg, during aircraft heavy engineering checks. Units and looms can be repaired or replaced at these times without the turnround and other line pressures experienced at Frankfurt. Similar work also takes place at Lufthansa Technik's other major engineering centers in Manila, Budapest and Shannon.

Robert Nyenhuis, Lufthansa Technik's vice president, aircraft engineering, admits that IFE support is a large and growing commitment but adds that it is necessary, since passengers increasingly expect an electronic environment in flight that is comparable to what they are used to on the ground. He adds that 50 percent more MRO time is needed on a new system than one that has been in service for some time and has achieved maturity.

Not all fault cases that are experienced under true service conditions will have been revealed by bench testing, no matter how exhaustive. For this reason, Lufthansa Technik prefers to have representatives from the relevant OEM available at Hamburg during the introductory phase of new IFE equipment.

Well equipped to support the parent airline's fleet, Lufthansa Technik offers similar service to third parties. It handles IFE maintenance for a number of leading carriers who transit Frankfurt, including Singapore Airlines, Emirates Air, Gulf Air, ANA and Spanair.

Lufthansa Technik also designs and installs IFE as new and retrofit equipment for a range of customers, including its own parent airline. It is equipping Lufthansa's long-haul fleet with the advanced FlyNet "Internet-in-the-Air" IFE package, based on the Connexion by Boeing broadband satcom system. Lufthansa Technik departments also are beginning to plan for the arrival of the Airbus A380 from 2007.

British Airways

British Airways, likewise, in-sources much of its IFE support, managing the base maintenance at its associate company, British Airways Avionics Engineering (BAAE) in Cardiff, South Wales. This organization supports systems on the airline's large fleet of Boeing and Airbus jets, as well as the Embraer regional jets operated by its British Airways CitiExpress offshoot. BAAE is able to maintain sophisticated units, such as main mux controllers and decoders, and can repair large volumes of equipment like handsets and seat electronic boxes.

According to Mark Williams, a planning engineer at Cardiff, the BAAE shop's IFE load is growing daily. (BAAE's growth is echoed by other airlines. A spokesman for one ruefully remarked, "Soon there will as much maintenance of IFE as of the aircraft itself!") This increase explains why BAAE opened a dedicated IFE shop in April this year with facilities that include test rigs for major equipment. Previously work was absorbed into existing electrical and avionics shops.

The Cardiff facility also houses a separate wiring loom shop. The recent increase in capacity enables the organization to handle 80 to 85 percent of its own IFE work, the remainder being subcontracted. For example, a number of LRUs are returned to OEM Rockwell Collins for repair.

It is easy to underestimate the scale of the technical provision needed to support IFE. BAAE officials point out, for instance, that there is more processing power in the IFE system on each of its Boeing 777s than there was in the first Apollo space mission. Technical departments need a combination of digital and software skills to support contemporary IFE systems, as well as familiarity with the analog and electromechanical (e.g. cassette) equipment of earlier generations. BAAE exemplifies this, having to support both contemporary Total Entertainment System (TES) equipment from Rockwell Collins and the early-generation GEC-Marconi GMIS system.

Given that the IFE gear on a large widebody aircraft may have well over a thousand LRUs (including those at the passenger seats), an in-flight entertainment system can double the complexity of the aircraft's avionics. Thus, at the line-maintenance level, carriers have discovered the misjudgment of expecting avionic engineers to carry out both IFE functional checks and work on the standard flight deck avionics, all within the short-block turnaround times imposed by today's tight operating schedules. Rather, some airlines have found the need to allocate teams of dedicated IFE technicians equipped with appropriate diagnostic and repair tools.

Virgin Atlantic

Sir Richard Branson's airline, Virgin Atlantic, applies this philosophy, having allocated dedicated IFE teams to its onboard maintenance requirements. Each aircraft in its fleet is subjected to a daily inspection; generally, one or two IFE technicians inspect and functionally check all seat units and the overall system. The carrier deals with straightforward snags on the spot. If unit replacements are required, the unserviceable LRUs are sent to the airline engineering division's IFE shop for investigation and, for simpler faults, repair. For substantial overhaul, however, units are returned to the relevant equipment OEM's service organizations--principally with Panasonic Avionics Corp. (formerly Matsushita), Rockwell Collins and Thales.

Items from Panasonic's MAS 2000e and MAS 3000 systems, for instance, are sent to Panasonic Maintenance Services' UK facility at Langley, near London. Thales items go to the Thales Avionics IFE support organization in California, and Rockwell Collins' 150i equipment is despatched to Rockwell Collins Aviation Services in Reading, UK.

Echoing Nyenhuis' comments, cabin maintenance manager Tony Kelley says the latest state of the art IFE generation, though inherently more reliable, poses particular challenges when maintenance does become necessary. For instance, software patches might be needed rather than a hardware intervention.

Virgin Atlantic has invested substantially in gearing up for this all-digital, software intensive generation, in terms of both technician skills and equipment. For example, line IFE specialists, working in conjunction with the IFE shop at London's Gatwick airport, are now equipped to handle much of the work on Panasonic's latest system, the advanced 3000, in house. A MAS rig provides a valuable LRU test capability at the Gatwick shop, which also houses software validation and training. In addition, Virgin Atlantic engineers can download certain IFE content for the 3000.

"Perfection is hard to attain," says Kelley, regarding work at the airline's IFE facilities. "But we do achieve in excess of 99 percent availability at dispatch."

Virgin Atlantic's success comes at a price. IFE support employs a core of a dozen dedicated IFE technicians. It also enlists at least 50 cabin technicians with some IFE capability, at London's Heathrow airport. An IFE development team of half a dozen can be called upon for assistance when required.

But, the airline asserts that cost is not the main consideration. Passengers' needs for entertainment and information on long-haul flights justify, in Virgin Atlantic's view, the substantial investment made in IFE support. It already is considering the scale of resources required to support the service entry of its Airbus 380s from 2008.

Air France

Despite its rather large fleet of 169 Airbus aircraft (with 59 orders or options) and 85 Boeing aircraft (20 orders and options) to support, Air France has not taken the in-sourcing route for IFE support--at least, not fully. Instead, under a dual approach, it repairs some of the more avionics-related systems in house while outsourcing the majority of the work to the IFE manufacturers. Items for in-house attention go to Air France Industries' (AFI's) new 84-million ($101-million) component overhaul facility at Entretien Op鲡tions Logistiques et Equipments (EOLE) near Orly Airport, Paris.

AFI does, however, rely on its own shops to implement new IFE and cabin installations. For example, its aircraft modification business unit has recently upgraded IFE provision for the Air France long-haul fleet, as part of a cabin revamp. Such work also is carried out for third parties.

Deeply Seated in IFE

Smaller airlines, along with a number of regional and low cost carriers (LCCs) that are equipped with in-flight entertainment (IFE) equipment, tend to outsource their IFE support. The choice here is between independent maintainers, such as Y2K Aviation in the UK, and the aftermarket support services of the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

Y2K was drawn into the IFE support business because it specializes in maintaining aircraft passenger seats. Once IFE units--ranging from power sockets for laptops to seatback screens with their associated line replaceable units (LRUs)--became inseparably associated with seats, Y2K began offering IFE support.

Its service covers all the usual seat-mounted elements, including power supply units, audio reproducers, video players, monitors and liquid crystal displays, plus wiring looms. The company even stocks IFE items at its customers' line stations.

According to Y2K, most serviceability problems are "prosaic," attributed essentially to passenger abuse. Seat boxes get kicked and scuffed, and anything from chewing gum to nail files get inserted into holes and slots. Spilt coffee has a corrosive effect on seat box innards, while rough treatment can bend connector pins, damage covers and chafe wiring. Practised line maintenance technicians, familiar with these types of damage, will be able to home in immediately on the resulting faults and identify the necessary rectifications.

OEM Support

IFE support has come to represent an important revenue stream for Rockwell Collins Aviation Services, Panasonic Maintenance Services and Thales' global service organization.

Rockwell Collins, for instance, has more than 80 Collins Aviation Services (CAS) centers worldwide and what it claims is the world's largest IFE maintenance base, at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris. This base was set up primarily to support Air France, but has also handled aircraft for airlines such as Air Tahiti Nui, American Airlines, Quantas, TAM, US Airways and Vietnam Airlines.

CAS supports the Collins APAX 150i system on Virgin Atlantic's Airbus A340 and Boeing 747 aircraft flying into London's Heathrow and Gatwick Airports. A three-year agreement with Virgin covers installation, repair, logistics, supply chain management and administrative support services. In return for the per aircraft payment, CAS guarantees a certain dispatch availability and relieves customers of concerns about providing their own line maintenance or ensuring that the right hardware is available at the right time.

Panasonic Maintenance Services offers its customers three levels of service: a basic service to meet in-bound flights and perform standard onboard checks of critical functions, full service that includes preventive checks of service functions at selected customer hub locations, and a turnkey service that includes total maintenance and logistics management. At this level, Panasonic offers seat availability guarantees and pays a penalty if the agreed rate is not met.

Panasonic has found that the built-in test equipment (BITE) in the new-generation equipment has eased its workload. It reports improved reliability of its MAS 3000, now that BITE software has helped overcome some teething problems. BITE also reveals user errors, so that issues can be addressed during training.

Thales' answer to after-sales support is its TopServices package. A global service organization can draw on dedicated IFE support specialists based with Thales Avionics Inc., Irving, Calif., and Thales Avionics in Toulouse, France. Technical representatives at locations worldwide manage day-to-day line requirements. Turnkey programs cover every phase of IFE operation, from entry into service through normal line operation to base maintenance plus supplemental type certificate and modification support, and spares and logistics support.

In addition, Thales is forming a collaborative support network with other aerospace equipment manufacturers to support a range of avionics. Customers gain the benefit of having a single point of contact for several equipment suppliers. The network is in the development stage and will evolve to include IFE support.

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