IFE providers aim to lure Apple on board aircraft as Panasonic launches broadband and Thales system is approved
Aircraft in-flight entertainment (IFE) system providers have held talks with Apple Computer on the possibility of licensing its iTunes media download software for airlines' own systems, enabling passengers to use frequent-flyer miles to download music and videos on to iPod MP3 players in-flight.
Downloads are one of a range of concepts being explored by suppliers such as Thales and Panasonic in response to airline requests to expand the range of on-board applications.
“We’ve had lots of discussions with Apple,” said Thales vice-president and in-flight systems general manager Brad Foreman last week at Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg. “The key is to get them to see the value of hosting iTunes on an aircraft. Is it a big enough market for them to be interested in? I’d try to do it tomorrow if they said yes.”
Panasonic Avionics strategic product marketing director David Bruner agreed that “there’s a lot of airline interest” in the idea of hosting iTunes. “Apple is aware of the market,” he said. “It’s a small market for them, but it’s a very visible market.”
But Bruner added: “Our interests are wider – not just Apple, but enabling any e-commerce on the aircraft. Music is one thing in that category we are working on.”
Apple refuses to confirm or deny the talks, saying "Apple never talks about the future."
Several airlines have requested building iPod docks, or Universal Serial Bus (USB) portsin seatbacks, allowing passengers to browse iTunes through the airline's IFE system before transferring music directly to the MP3 player. Flights could be an ideal time during which to download songs, but currently it is restricted to those passengers with laptops flying on a flight with a wireless network.
In order to license an onboard system offering, Apple would have to re-engineer the software to allow songs downloaded mid-flight to be transferred back on the customer's computer hard disk, currently prohibited.
Apple would also encounter licensing issues similar to those faced by in-flight telephony providers over where copyright and sales data are recorded for media downloaded in international airspace, according to industry insiders familiar with the negotiations.
During the Interiors Expo show, Panasonic announced plans to boost its IFE offerings by launching a broadband data communications service over Ku-band satellites. The company expects to reveal subcontractors for the project and its first two airline customers soon.
“Communication is the hot thing for the next two to three years,” said Bruner. “Connexion by Boeing has proved there is a market for broadband.” Panasonic will also support AeroMobile’s service, enabling passengers to use their mobile phones.
Meanwhile, Thales’ TopSeries i-4500 has been approved for use on Air Canada’s Embraer 175 and 190 regional jets, making the French company the first supplier of an in-seat, all-digital IFE system for the Brazilian manufacturer’s aircraft.
The video and audio on-demand system dispenses with the need for a box of electronics under each passenger seat.
ANDREW DOYLE / HAMBURG