Plenty of meat, but no sausage (IFEC/interiors update)

It has been a busy few weeks for this RWG with back-to-back-to-back trips on both sides of the pond. Along the way, I’ve picked up various bits of IFEC/aircraft interiors news that I’d like to share with you. (This meal is probably best served with German beer, but please no more sausage for the love of God and all that is holy!!)

Let’s get this party started…

Lest you think the contrary, Airbus/SITA joint venture OnAir is very open to providing Ku-band satellite-based connectivity to current and new customers should they want it. The company is bringing Inmarsat SwiftBroadband-supported connectivity to Qatar’s Boeing 787s, and “if one day Qatar wants Ku, then we’ll give them Ku”, OnAir chief executive Benoit Debains told me at AIX. “We are totally scalable and adaptable. Today, I believe the airlines will first want to see what they can do with the [SwiftBroadband] antenna. They can always add a second antenna and we can adapt to this link.”

So is OnAir open to partnerships with Ku providers, such as Row 44? “Of course,” says Benoit, who swung by the Row 44 stand at AIX to discuss a meeting between the two companies (great timing!). Says Benoit: “90% of the technology we bring is independent from the aircraft to ground link. If it’s Inmarsat, good. If it’s Ku, we can adapt even if we don’t manage the satellite link. We could be ATG (air-to-ground), Ka-band, or WXYZ.” Oh Benoit, you kidder.

While OnAir’s connectivity deal with Qatar – and its as-yet-unannounced deal with Emirates for the A380 – are significant, rival AeroMobile and partner Panasonic Avionics are also working on a number of very big announcements, after confirming the Air New Zealand deal last week. Let’s just say they involve Boeing long-range aircraft. Also, Lufthansa is gearing up to shortly launch Panasonic/AeroMobile-provided high-speed Internet and mobile service on overseas flights. 

Speaking of in-flight connectivity, my hometown airline, US Airways, has clarified just how far the Gogo service extends beyond US borders – exactly 100 miles. Here’s the message I received in my inbox yesterday.

US Air Wi-Fi.JPG

It’s no wonder, then, that Canadian operator WestJet this week said during an earnings conference call it is still in the early stages of studying in-flight connectivity – yes still! – because the infrastructure isn’t in place to support Wi-Fi. (How long will Air Canada have to wait for fleet-wide roll-out of Gogo? And what about a satellite-based solution, WestJet?)

Knowing a thing or two about Ku-band satellites is Row 44, which is confident it will secure more business in the United States (outside of its massive Southwest Airlines deal). Row 44 head of business development Frederick St Amour tells RWG: “There are domestic US and non-US carriers that see, and are becoming ever more aware of, the dramatic advantage that increased bandwidth [provides].”

But what about Ka-band-based connectivity, Frederick? Does Row 44 have any interest in that? “Ka-band is interesting at this point, but it is not crucial,” he says, noting, however, that Ka may be practical for antenna makers in “three to five years”.

One of those antenna makers, EMS Technologies, believes the technical problems surrounding Ka-band connectivity – such as the current geographical limitations and so-called “rain fade” – can be overcome, making passenger communications much more affordable.

Gary Hebb.JPGEMS Technologies vice-president of strategy and innovation Gary Hebb broke out his crystal ball and gave an excellent presentation on the matter at the recent WAEA (now APEX) single focus workshop on connectivity in Los Angeles. Read his presentation here (it also includes insight on the 60 Ghz unlicensed band for wireless in-flight entertainment).

EMS Aviation — WAEA SFW on Connectivity — Networks.ppt


Another antenna maker, Aerosat, sees great potential for the Ka market, and reveals it is developing an upgrade for its Ku-band antenna. “I would say that the trend in interest in Ka is up. You’d have to be [living] under a rock to not recognize that,” Aerosat vice-president of business development Bill McNary tells me.

One could reasonably argue that antenna makers might like to see serious Ku-band connectivity take-up in the commercial sector before shouting about the benefits of a better Ka-band business model. But it seems that even our L-band friends at Inmarsat may be eyeing up Ka like donuts in a shop window.

Here is a key par from consultant consultant Tim Farrar’s recent report on Ka activity:

Inmarsat’s future satellite plans

According to recent press reports, Inmarsat is “exploring a range of options for its next-generation global satellite system, including advanced L-band, Ka-band and other frequencies” and sent out a Request For Information to satellite manufacturers in late 2009 to evaluate possible alternatives for a fifth generation Inmarsat system. Though this process could in theory take quite a long time before any satellite order was even placed, it appears Inmarsat is moving forward very quickly to make a decision. We now expect Inmarsat to make an announcement of a multi-satellite contract at the investor day this summer, when it has promised to provide five year revenue growth targets (2011-15) and will presumably have to set expectations for capex over that period as well.

Iridium Communications, meanwhile, has picked Thales Alenia Space to design and build its next-generation constellation of satellites, which will support speeds of up to 1 Mbps to the cabin.

But enough about satellites. Let’s talk about interiors, specifically integrated IFEC/seats. During a pre-AIX interview with RWG, Boeing regional director passenger satisfaction and revenue Kent Craver said:

“Based on what we’re seeing, there is definitely strong interest from the industry for these more highly integrated product offerings. I’ve been around the industry for quite some time, and there has always been talk of a greater need for in-flight entertainment and seat suppliers to work closer together. I think you’re seeing the industry respond positively. My guess is we’re going to see additional integration between suppliers and seat manufacturers.”

Attendees at AIX saw examples of the integrated IFEC/seats coming to market, including the B/E Aerospace Pinnacle economy-class seat with Thales IFEC (one word – beautiful), which will be offered on Qatar’s 787s. Will the aircraft need to be retrofitted with the solution? Let’s hope not. Thales, Boeing and OnAir are all working to try to get this line-fit.

Also at AIX, we saw the Lumexis fiber-optics-based system integrated with Recaro’s BL 3510 seat, which will be offered on FlyDubai’s 737s; and the Panasonic Integrated Smart Monitor (“Smart”) on Weber and Recaro seats, which have already been ordered by a number of undisclosed customers.

You’ll recall that Teague – Boeing’s not-so-secret design weapon – aided Panasonic and Weber in developing the original, award-winning Smart IFEC/seat, seen here:

Teague Integrated Smart Monitor.jpg

Separately, Teague has been working with Boeing from concept through delivery on the 787 cabin “to define and deliver an unprecedented passenger experience”. But what are 787 customers requesting in terms of configuration for the twinjet? Here’s what Boeing recently told me on camera about that (an all-business 787? nice!):


Now imagine what you could do in the cabin of a Blended Wing Body aircraft, if it sees the light of day. That’s just what Aerospace International did in its May issue. Key pars from the magazine’s ‘Space Invaders’ feature:

BWB interior blurb.JPG

Innovation is not relegated to the long-haul (and futuristic) market, however. During the recent Regional Airline Association (RAA) convention in Milwaukee, Mitsubishi revealed that it is developing a premium-class seat for its MRJ regional jet. Delta Kogyo is already providing the economy-class seat. Japan has not made a commercial aircraft in decades. Consequently, for the MRJ to receive FAA certification, the agency will have to perform a shadow certification to ensure that the Japan civil aviation bureau’s processes are on par with FAA standards. (I wonder if the Koito aircraft seat debacle will make the FAA throw a bit of extra oversight into the mix.)

Also at RAA, ATR touted its new Series 600 turboprops’ cabin improvements, which enhance the feeling of space and comfort (and can give you a bit of drop-down IFE to boot).

ATR cabin 2.JPG

I’m guessing this cabin feels spacious providing the airline customer doesn’t pick the 29in pitch layout. Ouch!

ATR cabin 4.JPG

Separately, it bears mentioning that China is hosting another WAEA (APEX)-sponsored IFEC event (its third!). Be sure to check it out. Also, voting for the Passenger Choice Awards has started. Which carrier gives you the best passenger experience? Vote here!

(Photo of sausages from L.i.l.l.i.a.n’s Flickr photo stream

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