It's that time of the year again, when we celebrate the achievements of the in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) industry over the last 12 months.
Just as in 2008 and 2009, I've compiled my "top five most important IFEC moments" for 2010. Drum roll please....
1) Lufthansa re-launches in-flight high-speed Internet on overseas flights. The significance of this event really cannot be underscored enough. Following the late 2006 demise of Connexion by Boeing, Lufthansa was left up a creek without a paddle (i.e. it had already fitted a sizable portion of its fleet with Ku-band connectivity - including big MELCO antennas - and suddenly had no service provider.) Enter Panasonic Avionics, which vowed to fill the void left by Connexion. It took four long years, but Lufthansa and Panasonic finally made the magic happen on 30 November with the re-launch of Lufthansa's FlyNet-branded service. In so doing, Lufthansa has once again set the standard for airborne connectivity on international flights. There is little doubt that other carriers will be compelled to follow suit, most especially in the near-term by airlines that compete directly with Lufthansa on transatlantic routes, where FlyNet is being initially deployed. However, with 69 aircraft already fitted with Connexion equipment, Lufthansa has a massive head start over the competition. The carrier says it will offer FlyNet across its entire long-haul fleet by the end of 2011.
2) Inmarsat announces plan to develop a global network of Ka-band satellites for its new I-5 constellation. Long the leader in the L-band space, Inmarsat spent the last several years telling the industry that it didn't need big bandwidth, and that most airline passengers would be satisfied with basic connectivity applications (a bit of email, a bit of social media). But the London-headquartered company changed its tune in August, when it laid out an initiative to offer an ultra-fast Ka-band mobile broadband service called Global Xpress from 2014 (I call this an about-face, ahem, but Inmarsat says Global Xpress allows it to support its customers in the future "when their needs grow"). Inmarsat's leap into the world of Ka is prompting some airlines to consider forgoing equipping their aircraft with Ku-band connectivity (such as that which is being deployed by Lufthansa) and wait for the blazing speeds of up to 50MB/s promised by Ka. Inmarsat's decision also allowed Panasonic rival Thales to define a path for airlines that includes L-band-based connectivity services now and Ka-band services in the future (a pretty good sales pitch to have). Will any Panasonic Ku customers do a u-turn and opt to wait for Ka? It's possible (and you can be sure many a Ka-band presentation is being given to airlines) but Panasonic isn't resting on its laurels, and has already started developing a hybrid Ka/Ku antenna solution.
3) Integrated IFE/seats make a big splash (and change the industry forever). Last year Panasonic unveiled the first-ever truly integrated IFE/seat under partnership with Weber Aircraft and product development firm Teague, and promised that the design would prove revolutionary. Panasonic was right. The company's Integrated Smart Monitor (formerly known as Fusion) has paved the way for a seismic shift in how IFE vendors and aircraft seat makers do business, with all parties working together on a standard solution for the cabin before an airline even places its aircraft order. To wit, Panasonic can now count Delta Air Lines among its growing list of customers for Fusion. An integration project between Panasonic and B/E has also attracted the attention of United Airlines, which wants Boeing to make the seats linefit offerable for the Boeing 787s that are slated to be delivered to the carrier next year. Thales, meanwhile, has won big business from Qatar Airways for its IFE/seat integration project with B/E Aerospace, while IFE newcomer Lumexis collaborated with Recaro for integrated IFE/seats for FlyDubai (the product is now flying...see number 4).
4) Lumexis' in-flight entertainment system enters revenue service on FlyDubai Boeing 737. For years the IFE industry has been dominated by two players - Panasonic and Thales. But Lumexis is setting about to change all that with its new, super lightweight fiber-optics-based IFE, which has been integrated into Recaro slim seats (see number 3). While the fiber-to-the-screen (FTTS) system has not yet received linefit offerable status from Airbus or Boeing, it is headed in that direction. Boeing Commercial Airplanes' Kent Craver, who serves as regional director of passenger satisfaction and revenue, recently told my colleague Jon Ostrower: "A who lot of things go into that, but we'll be taking a look [at Lumexis]." Airbus is also understood to be studying Lumexis' FTTS for linefit, as well as another IFE offering from Sicma, a division of aircraft seat behemoth Zodiac.
5) JetBlue Airways strikes deal with ViaSat to bring Ka-band-based airborne Internet to its entire fleet. If there was any doubt about where in-flight connectivity is ultimately heading after Inmarsat's August revelation, JetBlue's announcement one month later put it to rest. A largely domestic operator, JetBlue doesn't need to wait until 2014 for a global Ka service. Instead, the carrier plans to take advantage of ViaSat's current first-generation WildBlue-1 satellite as well as a new high-capacity ViaSat-1 satellite that is slated to be launched into orbit in the spring of next year. The first installations are expected to occur in 2012, pending a definitive agreement (which was supposed to be signed before the end of this calendar year - where do things stand lads?) The JetBlue/ViaSat arrangement doesn't just highlight the importance of Ka. It also gives JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV an avenue to break into the commercial airline connectivity world, after its own Kiteline basic email/messaging service for airlines failed to take flight.
- IMS scored a launch customer, SriLankan, for its RAVE seat-centric IFE, giving Panasonic and Thales even more to think about in 2011.
- Oman Air became the first airline in the world to offer passengers both in-flight mobile and Internet, after switching on Airbus/SITA joint venture OnAir's connectivity solutions on an Airbus A330-300.
- Thales and Panasonic revealed plans for basing their next generation IFE systems on Android, with Thales already selling an Android-based handset to airlines!
- Aircell, whose Gogo air-to-ground (ATG)-based service has attracted the lion's share of domestic in-flight Wi-Fi business, says it's a hair's breath away from defining a connectivity solution for overseas, offshore flights (I'm sure its legacy airline customers will be thrilled.)
- Last, but certainly not least, the organization formerly known as the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) rebranded as the infinitely more exciting/open-minded/interesting Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) and finally started boasting about the rather significant role it plays in forming the passenger experience.
So, what do you think? Have I missed any biggies?
One thing is clear (especially if you look back to the 2008 and 2009 "top fives") - this industry is getting VERY exciting, and 2011 is sure to be even more so. I LOVE IT!
Thanks for reading! Happy holidays!