I’ve been travelling so much lately that I hardly know what time zone I’m in, but that hasn’t stopped me from gathering in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) intell along the way. At times like these, when I’ve filled my coffers to max capacity, there is only one solution – an IFEC news and rumour roundup of course! And away we go with a stream of consciousness that includes a bit of both.
Despite saying it planned to imminently release a Service Bulletin to address the issue of Wi-Fi interference with Honeywell Phase 3 display units, Boeing has still not tabled its guidance. The US airframer says it is “still working on it”. But what will the Service Bulletin entail? One deep source tells RWG that it appears Boeing is going to “ultimately do what everybody else is doing in retrofit” and that is to disallow transmitting devices in the cockpit. Well now, that would throw a wrench in some airlines’ plans for real-time electronic flight bag (EFB) applications, wouldn’t it? A recent ABC News report, in which Boeing’s Dave Carson is quoted as saying it just takes a stray cell phone signal “in the right place at the right time” to create serious technological havoc in the cockpit, gives some idea as to the airframer’s feelings on the matter. Of course, Carson must be aware of some real-world examples, such as what occurred during STC for installation of Gogo in-flight Internet on American Airlines’ Boeing 737NG aircraft. Outside the United States, Emirates – which offers AeroMobile’s in-flight mobile connectivity solution on many of its aircraft – already has placards in its cockpits. I hear it took about four high-powered phones in super close proximity to the Emirates displays for blanking to occur, but anything outside the cockpit was deemed okay. Emirates has not confirmed this information.
With questions about the susceptibility of avionics to interference still lingering you’d think that the equipage of in-flight connectivity on the world fleet was slowing. Think again. Even though Boeing is not linefitting connectivity to its aircraft, the airframer intends to participate in post-delivery modifications (which begs the question – do the Honeywell issue and well-timed ABC report offer a convenient ‘out’ for Boeing, i.e. the airframer can point to that as its reason for not providing tedious connectivity linefits, which might further hold up deliveries?)
Thales, which has been contracted to provide an Inmarsat SwiftBroadband-supported IFEC system for Qatar’s Boeing 787s, originally hoped connectivity would be linefit to the twinjets. As did Qatar, whose management adviser Stephen Vella said in 2010 that Boeing was providing support to Qatar and Thales “to do what perhaps nobody has asked to do before the end of 2011″, and that is to make the Thales connectivity solution linefit offerable on the 787. In a recent interview with RWG, however, Thales IFE chief Alan Pellegrini revealed the latest plan is for Boeing to provide some provisioning on a linefit basis, and then Thales will work with Boeing’s Commercial Aviation Services for post-delivery mods as soon as the aircraft delivers. “The post-delivery mod includes installation of a second satellite communication radio and antenna; the installation of our on board Wi-Fi and mobile telephone system to support cell phone access,” says Pellegrini. “From a linefit perspective, the fact that we’ll be doing this with a post-delivery mod means that all the engineering work will have been done so even if an airline cannot get the system linefit from Boeing, we’ll already have an engineering package and arrangement for post-delivery. It’s less than ideal from an airline perspective, but better than the alternative of not having an option so this will be good precedent-setting and groundbreaking in getting the system installed on the aircraft.” The first retrofits are expected to occur in early 2012 after first deliveries to Qatar. Generation three in-flight entertainment hardware will initially be on board the Qatar 787s. Thales’ fourth generation Android-based AVANT IFEC system, of which Qatar is an announced customer for the 787, is expected to make its debut on the aircraft around 2013. However, AVANT is not yet offerable on the 787. “It’s a challenge for Boeing to cut it in [to production] more so than Airbus to start with a clean sheet of paper. I suspect Boeing will want to be more assertive or aggressive with new IFEC technology once they get their feet on the ground with deliveries of the 787, recognizing that the product will be going into new aircraft but also via retrofit and on other Airbus platforms, including the A380 in 2012 so I think here will be market pressure to get the latest generation systems on Boeing aircraft,” says Pellegrini.
Check out the older-looking Thales IFE on LOT’s 787, with an all-too-cosy nine-abreast configuration.
Due to the 787 delay Panasonic Avionics is also seeing its older in-flight entertainment equipment being installed on the twinjet (the eX2 monitors have been flying on 777s for a couple of years) instead of its latest smart monitor integrated into slimline seats. However, United-Continental appears poised to receive the smart monitors early in the game. Once things start flowing more smoothly, the interiors in the cabin are expected to catch up, says Panasonic Avionics CEO Paul Margis. “I think right now it is a bit stalled because they [Boeing] are so focused on making sure the airplane itself is flying [in revenue service]. The connectivity is a tough one because of the antennas and all of that, but the interior will be the fasted thing moving because it’s not that hard and airlines are pushing to be competitive.”
That competitiveness is driving innovation in non-embedded in-flight entertainment solutions as well. Panasonic showed off a preliminary version of its wireless solution at the recent Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg. Thales, meanwhile, thinks wireless content distribution is an interesting concept and “I can say that we’re certainly looking into it”, says Pellegrini. The company should have a pretty firm position on the matter by the time that the big APEX show rolls around in September. As previously reported, Aircell, LiveTV, Siemens/Altran and Lufthansa Systems are among the other wireless IFE players readying for business.
These wireless IFE initiatives seem all the more important now that airlines are eyeing Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab-based portable IFE solutions for their cabins. However, the path for turning iPads into IFE, in particular, has been fraught with challenges. Apple’s ecosystem is set up for the consumer space, and they have rules on how you manage content. Is Apple pleased with how BlueBox has handled the Jetstar arrangement? I’m hearing no, which makes me wonder – would it make more sense for Apple to reach some sort of formal agreement with one of the big manufacturers, like Panasonic or Thales? Don’t be surprised if they do.