Commercial, Embedded Avionics

Q&A: Thales In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity

By Jonathan Ray | June 1, 2013
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The market for in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) is making rapid changes, just as the connectivity systems are on the ground. Increasingly, customers are relying more on their own devices, including tablet computers, laptops and smartphones. But according to Thales In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity executives, this does not spell the demise of the traditional seat-back display system. Instead it opens up new opportunities for airline branding capabilities and mobile applications that can extend the “passenger experience” beyond the aircraft.

“There are investments that airlines are making into their own mobility platforms and we need to support. We’re not there as an industry yet but with the new platforms and the new architecture we’ve got the baseline to get there,” Stuart Dunleavy, vice president and general manager, media and connectivity business, told Avionics Magazine.

Thales has several IFE projects in the world, including its GateSync system providing a pipe to get operational data on and off the aircraft, its next-generation TopSeries IFEC system, which will be based on Android operating system; and working with partners in China and Europe to develop an air-to-ground communications systems in those countries.

Dunleavy and Andrew Thompson, director of connectivity at Thales IFEC, sat down with Avionics Magazine at the company’s Irvine, Calif., headquarters to discuss market trends and technologies on the horizon for this segment of the market.

Question: Ka-band connectivity will be available in a more wide-spread basis for in-flight applications in the coming years with the launch of Inmarsat’s GX Aviation system. Do you find that you have to do a lot of education to the marketplace about connectivity, specifically Ka vs. Ku?

Dunleavy: Huge. … What we see today is we have various technologies L-band, Ka, Ku, air-to-ground in certain parts of the market, ground-based connectivity as well so there’s a lot we can do when the aircraft is on the ground. In terms of that education process, we see connectivity as a need for the aircraft wherever it is and wherever it is on the global operation. It’s highly likely that there will not a single solution that addresses every aircraft for every need wherever that might be. But as it relates to Ka vs. Ku, is that great thing about Ka for us is if you compare it to some of the previous satellite constellations that were launched for the aviation business they were unique, they were specifically tailored for our industry, they were powerful and complex and amazing technology … and that adds risk and complexity and difficulty. The great thing about Ka is that it’s already flying … so the technology exists, and in fact if we had the avionics today, if we had the antenna today we could do testing on it … What we’re waiting for is that global single-solution provider, universal coverage that Inmarsat promises, and we think that is really, really important. We’re not opposed to Ku, per se. … What we have been able to do is put together solution that we really think addresses those three fundamentals of global coverage; high capacity, which is similar enough on a global basis that you can offer a consistent product; and has pricing and regulatory controls which are consistent.

 Q: Will there be a time when an aircraft is supportive of both Ku and Ka?

Thompson: I think the answer is yes. I know that several companies explored having a dual technology with a single antenna. It has significant engineering challenges to make that system work properly, and I’m not sure that you’ll see that solution widespread, if at all. Certainly you’ll see dual antennas.

Dunleavy: I think we have to focus on the passenger experience first and foremost. That means saying to our airline customers we can deliver you a really high quality passenger experience, or airline data management solution, wherever your aircraft will be, wherever its flying. As a result of that, we have to drive simplicity, take the complexity out of the model. So that means, find an antenna, find a satellite constellation that addresses 99 percent of your needs, rather than trying to add more, and more, and more and more and making it more expensive. And that’s the other point that the technology is one thing and the economics area a massive factor as well. Our industry is still under pressure. The connectivity service providers … they are still not hugely successful … there is a still fundamental question about how do you marry the appropriate technology with the commercial aspect that makes sense. We’re very much focused on creating a solution that meets almost all of the need at a price point and an operating cost that makes sense. 

Question: The terms seemed to have changed. Avionics suppliers seem to be using “passenger experience” rather than in-flight entertainment and connectivity. Can you discuss that?

Dunleavy: Thales went through a rebranding, a revalidation of our identity. … We changed as a company in about ’07. And we stopped thinking about in-flight entertainment as seat-back screens and cables and we migrated to world where it was about when a passenger sits in a seat, when the cabin crew interacts with the system, what do they want to do, what do they going to see, how do you feel after you’ve finished using a Thales product. That’s the real question. We put a lot more emphasis on industrial design, branding, the way that we interact with our customers. We have a very weird go-to-market strategy because we have three massive customer constituencies the OEMs, Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, with whom we most certainly have a direct relationship; we have the airline relationship, and then we have the passenger with whom we very infrequently talk. Our most important, arguably, customer constituent is two or three steps removed from us. It’s a real challenge to keep them at the forefront of our minds, to work the airlines and the OEMs and respect that consumer technology angle. We’ve spent a huge amount of effort and energy in trying to make the shift into a passenger experience company. … For us as a global solutions provider, we have to be able to offer that entire suite, and allow an airline to chose a particular range of those solutions for different aircraft that make sense. …

Thompson: From the perspective when we went through a design shift a few years back, one of the things we’re under pressure from an airline is to get zero passenger complaints, so that means a system needs to be working as advertised so reduces the workload of the flight crew. … If you minimize those complaints you will establish brand loyalty and the airline will be more likely to come back to us purchase and engage the passenger.

One of the things that we’ve found since the inception of the smartphone … that if you come onto the aircraft and actually disengage from the airline, meaning they will use the seatback less. The seatback is an opportunity for the airline to push their brand, and across brands. If someone brings on their own content, that link is now lost. With connectivity you can bring that link back … that re-engages the passenger back with the airline. With connectivity you extend our thought process with IFE to ensure you maintain that brand loyalty … In the cabin everything has to be perfect for the passenger, and the idea is to engage them. You can’t have a seat belt that is broken, that causes problems for the airlines. You can’t have a seat that’s broken. The IFE needs to be easy to use, it needs to be compelling … that is one of the factors that a customer uses to consider which airline to use. They will go with certain airlines based upon the amenities that are offered with that service. … We extend that thought process over to connectivity. Passengers expect data rates that are similar to the ground, they expect compelling content, compelling applications, or at the very least the ability to send out email.

Q: With the rise of the smartphone and tablets, and connectivity services on aircraft, do you envision seatback displays going away in the near future?

Dunleavy: The seatback screen is really part of the delivery mechanism. It’s part of the distribution chain. We don’t make TVs; we provide an entertainment and technology solution for our customers. And that was less of a bold statement 10 years ago because that screen was somewhat of a dumb distribution device. But we still need cables, and you still needed service. You still needed a supply chain to get content from a studio, package it and put it on the aircraft. So it’s always been a means to an end. What’s changing now is that some airlines and some passengers are saying I want similar content experience but also I want more, but I don’t only want it through the seatback screen, I want it through other things. … Whatever my passenger brings onboard, in much the same way, whatever I take into my hotel room, as the venue provider, as the company that provides the passenger with the overall environment, I’m going to give you the very best entertainment and movie experience that I can possibly provide you … I think the screens are becoming simultaneously simpler; the electronics are becoming easier to upgrade, it’s becoming cheaper. We’ve got downward price pressure on those screens all the time, but they’re also becoming more sophisticated... I think the way in which the technology is used, the simplicity and the cost of the solutions will continue to decline, there will always be markets where in-seat video systems are not necessarily the most appropriate solution, but at the same time, the spend per aircraft is actually increasing because right now airlines are saying I don’t just need a screen, I need connectivity and wireless and I need two screens, … there’s a shift in the delivery, but the end-to-end requirement hasn’t fundamentally changed. …

The fundamental point for me, is that particularly in the long-range market you’ve got aircraft with 300, 400, 500 seats, you’ve got a density of people that you don’t see almost in any other IT environment. It’s very unusual to find the dense delivery requirements that we have in such a small space with such a minimal network environment. If you want as an airline to have passengers in their seats for 12 hours entertained, relaxed, rather than standing up, hanging out in the galley, flirting with the cabin crew, trying to get more booze, … there is a need to provide that really high quality, on-demand interactive entertainment experience. At the moment, the best way to do that remains an installed network with a seatback screen and some sort of service distribution environment. However, it’s becoming much, much simpler. … Our next generation platforms don’t have electronics boxes under the seat. The cabling and networking from the seat to the head-end servers has been significantly reduced. The number of servers has gone down dramatically as well; the fact that we have local storage in each seat screen means that we can continually drive down the weight. … The trade-off with the airline is becoming much easier to stomach. It’s not like adding a couple of metric tons of systems and our ability to manage the lifetime upgrades is much better as well. …

Thompson: I think the overarching question is are you willing to do away with the screen and rely on passengers bringing on their own devices and providing power for that device, and then providing content for that device. As of today, you need different resolutions for each of the passenger devices. Today for each movie file you need five files in order to get the bulk of the passenger devices that are brought onto the aircraft. In the future that might be standardized, where it’ll be the same file for an iPad as for an Android device, but it’s not there today. … the airline really wants to push their brand and their brand loyalty and the only cost-effective way to do that is to put on video screens. I find that the technologies will be complementary. The other key aspect is today is you can get more frequent and more recent content, content that has recently come from the movie theaters, … there is a significant lag time from when you can get it on Netflix vs. when you can get it on the airline vs. when you can get it in the movie theater. There’s a hierarchy of who gets the movies and when they are released.
Dunleavy: Our servers now individually can hold 1.2 terabytes of information, each screen can hold 250-512 gigabytes in each seat. So the airline can host hundreds of movies, hundreds of TV shows, thousands of audio tracks, which you just can’t carry around with you yet. … There’s a fundamental value in the airline putting together a set of applications and experiences. So for us as a technology partner to take applications or content that exists in the consumer market and make it relevant for that in-flight environment, there’s real talent in that. There’s an awful lot more we can do and we have to get better and more sophisticated in the way we approach it. … We’re seeing two significant trends that are influencing our investment plans. The first is the traditional in-flight entertainment, the seat-back screen, is becoming more and more informed by connectivity, and secondly, entertainment is increasingly becoming connectivity. …

Q: Thales has signed several IFEC deals in recent months with clients in Asia and the Middle East. Are these particular growths for the company? Are there regional differences as it pertains to in-flight entertainment and connectivity?

Dunleavy: It’s nice to be diversified; it’s nice to have the global market. … We’re not without North American customers. We have Air Canada, the single biggest IFE fleet in the world. We have American Airlines, with a massive 200-and-some aircraft program, with in-seat with a plan for every seat. … The Middle East competes very aggressively on product. … It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like nuclear arms escalation. You always have to have something better than the guy next to you. And to be honest, they do it really well. … We have a massive market share in China; we’ve been very fortunate to be successful there. It’s a slightly different approach to the passenger experience, but equally forward thinking. They have an incredibly prosperous middle class and travel is expanding dramatically. … They also will have by 2020 an enormous number of aircraft flying within China.

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