ANALYSIS: Converging path for connectivity and IFE systems

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While in-seat in-flight entertainment systems and the ability for passengers to stream or access content from their own devices may seem opposite solutions for onboard entertainment, it increasingly looks like the two will meet squarely in the middle.

The ability, be it through data connectivity or onboard wifi solutions, to piggyback the content and applications an ever larger number of passengers bring into the cabin might beg the question ultimately of do airlines need to equip their aircraft with complicated in-seat IFE systems?

The subject of using mobile devices as a way of bringing entertainment came up during Lufthansa head of product Joachim Schneider's wide-ranging keynote address looking into possible future trends in the cabin at the recent Passenger Experience conference ahead of Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg.

"This is not just to save costs, but it is providing additional customer services because that is how they consume it," he said. "It is a way of adding value because you are adding more variety."

It is this desire to add value which seems to have given IFE system providers extra confidence that they can benefit from evolving consumer behaviour and that it is not a case of either/or, but of both.

"Because of second screen [experience] it becomes an opportunity," says Panasonic Avionics executive director corporate sales and product management Neil James of the in-seat versus bring your own device debate.

Executives at the big IFE system firms point to how, once again, fast changing consumer behaviour, has altered the picture. Second screening, where people use their mobiles or tablets in the moments main screen television is not capturing their attentions, seems just as apt for the airline cabin as it is at home.

In short it means integrating connectivity solutions with the in-seat experience, rather than replacing it. Here James points to the value airlines see in keeping the in-seat viewing experience, and the service, branding and possible revenue opportunities that go with it. "Especially in the premium environment, they [airline] want to create that lean-back, we take care of you experience. And if people are not in the airline world, the airlines are missing out," he says.

Interestingly in highlighting the biggest ever monitor in an economy seat, as part of Encore's new design during Aircraft Interiors, Panasonic included a multi-screen layout option reflecting how other applications could be implemented into the passengers environment.

Alan Pellegrini, chief of the US division of IFE systems firm Thales similarly sees wireless and in-seat options as complementary. "I've been pleasantly surprised at the lack of tension. It isn't wireless and against in-seat," he says.

Panasonic - through its global broadband and its majority-owned Aeromobile solutions - already has a play in the connectivity market. Thales has now created its own offering by announcing during Aircraft Interiors its teaming with Gogo - which provides air-to-ground and satellite-based connectivity solutions - to enable it to provide a full IFEC offering.

"We will work with Gogo to offer a complete broadband solution that is well integrated," Pellegrini says. "We are seeing many airlines wanting both. They see it as a very complementary technology.

"Airlines want flexibility and try to force the down a route doesn't give them freedom of choice. This gives the customer the best of both worlds," he says.

It is in those narrowbody markets where IFE systems have still to penetrate where most see it as a question of one versus the other.

Norbet Muller, senior vice president for Lufthansa Systems' wireless product BoardConnect, sees narrowbody aircraft as the market for its systems, not because of technical limitations - the system has been flying on a Boeing 767 in trials - but as this is the market opportunity. For aircraft that have nothing by way of in-seat entertainment today, it marks a relatively inexpensive chance to offer this capability.

BoardConnect is currently in trials with three airlines including Lufthansa. The latter has been at the forefront of airlines embracing broadband connectivity after relaunching such services on its intercontinental fleet as the driving first customer for Panasonic's connectivity service three years ago.

"We are almost almost complete," explains the airline's head of product and airport passenger services, says Schneider, of installation of its intercontinental fleet. All but a few of its long-haul aircraft - those still awaiting retrofit - are equipped with the system.

"Now we are looking at the next stage, trying to connect on the continental fleet. I am pretty sure in the next five to 10 years this will be more or less standard [for the industry].

"This is going to have to be based on air-to-ground because it is the most cost effective way to do it," he adds. The airline is currently talking to various suppliers on a solution.

Certainly the experience of those that have adopted connectivity services - of which there are several types and possible applications offering a variety of bandwidth - appears to be gaining momentum as more aircraft become equipped.

Saudia, which is extending its in-flight connectivity programme with OnAir's GSM and wi-fi service to cover 20 Boeing 777-300ERs in addition to the eight A330s already in service, has seen increasing usage as it becomes more established on the fleet. "It is requested by the customers," says Saudia's section head, cabin interiors, Mohsen Abduljawwad, "It is now more of a mandatory service [for customers] that needs to be provided."

OnAir chief executive Ian Dawkins adds: "As we have added more [installed] aircraft, and we have seen a continued increase in GSM and wi-fi usage for Saudia." He says this is on is in line with similar patterns it has been seeing elsewhere.

Vice president of Panasonic's global communications service, David Bruner, points to the growth of in-flight connectivity since it launched its service three and a half years ago. The company has 175 aircraft flying with the service and has 31 airlines contracted for such services as part of a big ramp up over the coming year. He believes a tipping point was passed in late 2011 after United Airlines made its big wi-fi commitment, which includes Panasonic's Ku-band solution and some ViaSat-equipped aircraft.

"It is not a question of do they [airlines] need it, that's over. Airlines are now on what should we use," he says. "The market is exploding. Passenger expectations and how much they are going to use the bandwidth is growing exponentially. It is changing the way we operate. All of us have to be fast adopters and scale our networks up to support increased useage.

"It has now become a competitive weapon [for airlines]," he adds, "if we have that radical change over the last three and half years, what will happen in the next three and a half years."