Airline customer surveys show that the number one in-flight entertainment (IFE) request from passengers is onboard connectivity that lets them use their own personal devices, such as iPods, BlackBerries and laptop computers.
The trend is so pronounced among airlines that the traditional acronym "IFE" should be modified to IFE&C to include connectivity, said Cedric Rhoads, director of product marketing for Panasonic Avionics, of Lake Forest, Calif.
The ability to send and receive e-mails, surf the Web and text message is becoming an important component of the flying experience. Increasingly, airlines are looking beyond seatback displays, becoming more a provider of the connectivity, rather than the content.
"I think that airlines are a bit stuck in that people’s devices are getting so small and light that you have to wonder what is the actual demand for an in-seat screen," said Gregg Fialcowitz, president and co-founder of Row 44, of Westlake Village, Calif., a company that offers Ku-band connectivity for carriers such as Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Fialcowitz said he thinks we could see the end of most in-seat screens within eight to 10 years, which is about the time frame that airlines expect a particular IFE system to remain in place.
"The main IFE priority for airlines is to spend as little as possible and maximize ancillary revenue," said Fialcowitz. "It’s a brave new world with movie rentals, broadband to the phone, SMS messaging and advertiser-supported services for e-commerce. Airlines recognize that passengers want these services, and vendors are looking for ways to help airlines spend as little money as possible on IFE systems."
IFE vendors are responding with a variety of broadband systems that enable the use of personal devices, while offering an ancillary revenue streams for airlines.
"We’ve always assumed that business travelers were more interested in connectivity, but what we’re finding is that the leisure traveler is just as interested and puts [connectivity] on the list with food and leg room," said Fialcowitz.
As a result of the demand, the handful of Requests for Information issued by the airlines in recent years to see which technologies are available in the marketplace are now becoming Requests for Proposals because carriers recognize that IFE is becoming a differentiator on certain routes — especially for leisure travelers. Their desire for connectivity, as opposed to the business traveler’s, affects the type of systems that IFE providers offer.
Row 44 provides a WiFi-enabled cabin system based on Ku-band satellites, so additional bandwidth can be added through new transponders.
Worldwide coverage eliminates the need to constantly switch between narrowly focused Ku-band satellite beams. Such capability provides an economic advantage that is helping connectivity move beyond early adopters to more widespread use in commercial aviation, according to IFE supplier Thales.
Thales offers IP-based voice and data services through SwiftBroadband, which is supported by three Inmarsat I-4 satellites providing global coverage.
"Ku may be a good technology for the U.S., but it remains to be seen if it is good for transoceanic and transregional routes throughout Europe," said Alan Pellegrini, managing director of Thales’ IFE business in Irvine, Calif. "Economically, an organization like Inmarsat is now at the point where the technology can support Internet access on an airplane."
Thales’ latest TopSeries IFE system is being designed as a managed Web portal that is updatable from the ground, and which will be populated with a portfolio of applications that are resident on the system. It is expected that such capabilities will be part of the TopSeries IFE system that Thales is developing for British Airways. The British Airways order is for 40 widebody aircraft, including new-build Airbus A380s, Boeing 777-300s and 787 Dreamliners.
"I can’t reveal the attributes of the system, but what British Airways wants to do from a passenger experience is incorporate some applications that will be state of the industry," said Pellegrini.
He said the system will have memory sufficient for 100 movies, 300 television programs and 400 CDs of music. Other features include USB and RCA jack ports at each seat for personal electronic devices, and in-seat laptop power plugs throughout the cabin.
The first Thales TopSeries system will go into service on a new-production Boeing 777-300ER in mid-2010, and will also be installed on British Airways’ Boeing 787s and Airbus A380s.
Just as Pellegrini pointed out one of the disadvantages of Ku-band systems, Panasonic’s Rhoads likewise sees issues with services like SwiftBroadband.
"SwiftBroadband is a service with some value propositions in that every over-water aircraft has the basic system installed and just has to upgrade," he said. "The availability of bandwidth and cost is the disadvantage. Ku-band is the alternative, with the antenna technology being the key issue."
Rhoads said Panasonic Avionics designs its hardware to be "connectivity system agnostic," though its Ku-band products have dominated recent developments. For example, the company has entered into multi-year agreements with five television news groups, including Bloomberg Television, BBC World News and Al Jazeera, to provide live news and information via its proprietary Panasonic Airline Television Network. The system will employ the same EMS Technologies antenna and onboard components as the company’s eXConnect Ku-band system.
One of the key technical challenges for IFE vendors is "future proofing," ensuring a system an airline buys today will be relevant a decade from now.
"We haven’t solved the problem of future proofing, but broadband is the first step," Fialcowitz said.
"We don’t have a path off the aircraft for real-time monitoring of the aircraft. Future proofing will come when we can load software and content remotely, and move from a hardware- to a software-based system that allows us to compress video and send updates to the system via the network."
For airlines that believe a seat-back screen is part of their business case, the priority is to reduce weight in the hardware and wiring necessary to bring entertainment to the seat. This is an area where industry observers say fiber optics can play a key role, particularly for narrowbody, short-haul aircraft that typically don’t have in-seat IFE systems.
Lumexis, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., recently completed the trial of a Fiber-to-the-Seat (FTTS) system on a US Airways Airbus A320. Fialcowitz said the FTTS technology "definitely peaked airline curiosity" at recent industry trade shows.
The FTTS system was installed on the A320 by Empire Aero Center, an MRO in Rome, N.Y. According to Lumexis, the system is about one-third the weight of a conventional AVOD installation.
The US Airways flight trial began March 9 and ran until May 15 (with the system deactivated May 27). During this period, the FTTS system was used in nearly 300 flight segments and accumulated 1,200 hours of operation, said Daniel Riddersen, Lumexis director of customer support. A Lumexis representative flew on every flight during the trial.
Throughout the trial, 61,366 videos were watched (movies, TV shows and trailers), with 224,872 music tracks and 18,305 games played. The A320 flew a daily schedule from Santa Ana, Calif., to Phoenix, from Phoenix to Atlanta, and back again. Riddersen said most of the IFE activity occurred during the longer trips between Phoenix and Atlanta. "We were really pleased," he said.
Moreover, there was not a single system reset during the trial, something Riddersen said was "unprecedented" for a new IFE system.
To gauge passenger reaction to the IFE options afforded by the system, three different pricing levels were tested. In the first, all content was free, which "challenged the robustness of the system" because it got heavy use, Riddersen said. At the second level, US Airways charged a flat fee for a single flight leg (and also changed price points during individual legs during the trial). At the third level, all content was pay per view. "US Airways wanted a system to differentiate themselves from other carriers and also bring in some revenue," Riddersen explained.
Only a fraction of the system’s audio and video on demand (AVOD) memory was employed for the US Airways trial. Passengers had the option to watch 36 movies and 100 hours of television, listen to 50 music CDs and nine audio books, and play about a dozen games. The production version of the system would have a memory of about one terabyte, which is enough for 500 hours of entertainment, according to Riddersen.
No more trials are scheduled at this point, but Lumexis was in discussion with US Airways about possibly testing the FTTS system on a widebody aircraft.
Avionics Magazine’s Product Focus is a monthly feature that examines some of the latest trends in different market segments of the avionics industry. It does not represent a comprehensive survey of all companies and products in these markets.
Following are some recent developments announced by manufacturers and suppliers of in-flight entertainment and connectivity systems.
US Airways in July announced plans to outfit its aircraft with in-flight connectivity capabilities using the Aircell Gogo system. Beginning in 2010, the Gogo in-flight Web service will be deployed on the carrier’s Airbus A321s flying domestic routes. Internet browsing, Instant Messaging, e-mail and VPN access will be available for purchase to passengers with laptop computers, smart phones and other Wi-Fi enabled devices.
OnAir, a joint venture between Airbus and SITA based in Geneva, Switzerland, said its Mobile OnAir in-flight connectivity system recorded its 10,000th flight in commercial service in March. The 10,000th flight was a TAP Portugal flight from Lisbon to Munich. Since December 2007, Mobile OnAir services had been used on flights to 162 cities in 34 countries in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the company said. In June, Hong Kong Airlines announced plans to install full Mobile OnAir and Internet OnAir in-flight passenger communications services on its new fleet of four Airbus A330-200s and six A330-300s. EGYPTAIR and Qatar Airways also announced plans to install the system on their aircraft
Flight Display Systems, of Alpharetta, Ga., was granted Parts Manufacturing Approval (PMA) from FAA for three of its cabin entertainment products. The PMA’d systems are the VGA distribution amplifier, universal remote control and the 7-inch widescreen LCD and mount.
Rockwell Collins this year signed three airline customers for its dPAVES in-flight entertainment system. Air Arabia selected dPAVES for 49 Airbus A320s; Air Europa will install the system on 12 Boeing 737s (with 13 options); and CanJet Airlines will install it on two additional 737-800s. The dPAVES system includes a Broadcast Digital Server, which offers 160 gigabyte storage capability and embedded Airshow Moving Map in a 4 MCU box. Other features include scalable architecture, route specific content, fleet commonality of line replaceable units (LRU), plug-and-play LRUs and flyable data loader, Rockwell Collins said.
Wataniya Airways of Kuwait earlier this year chose the Thales TopSeries in-flight entertainment system for nine new Airbus A320s. Passengers in first class can access on-demand entertainment, including video and audio selections, interactive map and games, on 10.6-inch widescreen displays. The TopSeries system includes ports to plug in personal electronic devices such as laptops.
AeroMobile, a joint venture of ARINC and Telenor, in July completed the certification of its in-flight Internet system on the Boeing 777-300ER, its sixth aircraft type. The AeroMobile system is now certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for use on six widebody aircraft types, the company said.
EMS Satcom in June was awarded the first EASA supplemental type certificate (STC) on its AMT-3800 High-Gain Antenna (AMT-3800) and HSD-440 High-Speed Data Terminal. The system, "SBB by Alnair," integrated by Alnair Aerospace, provides passengers with worldwide e-mail, voice, Internet and Wi-Fi capabilities. The Alnair system also provides Inmarsat cockpit safety services and Aero H+ voice.
Honeywell introduced a business jet SwiftBroadband connectivity system, called Honeywell SatCom, in May. The SatCom system is capable of providing end-to-end VoIP telephony services over the SwiftBroadband network. It consists of a standalone satellite terminal (model HD-710), a Cabin Communications Gateway System that includes an Internet Protocol Private Branch Exchange, a network router and wireless access point (models CG 710 and CR 710).
Panasonic Avionics signed several contracts with airlines this year for its IFE product line. The company will install its Digital Overhead AudioVideo System on multiple aircraft in the American Airlines fleet, including its 100th Digital Overhead AudioVideo System. In addition, Panasonic Avionics installed its eX2 IFE system on two Boeing 777-300ERs for Air Austral, based in La Réunion, France. The company this year achieved a milestone for its Multiplexed Passenger Entertainment System (MPES), which was installed on the 6,000th Boeing 737 to enter into service. Panasonic MPES is an overhead audio and video in-flight entertainment system for narrowbody aircraft.
EMS Satcom www.emssatcom.com
Flight Display Systems www.flightdisplay.com
NAT Seattle www.natseattle.com
Northern Airborne Technology Ltd. www.northernairborne.com
Panasonic Avionics Corp. www.mascorp.com
Rockwell Collins www.rockwellcollins.com
Row 44 www.row44.com
Sagem Avionics. www.sagemavionics.com
Starling Advanced Communication www.starling-com.com
Tecom Industries www.tecom-ind.com
Teledyne Controls www.teledyne-controls.com
Thales Group www.thalesgroup.com