Economy-class not forgotten as Panasonic's 'iPod merge' progresses

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As the proliferation of Apple iPod and iPhone devices continues unabated, in-flight entertainment (IFE) giant Panasonic Avionics is moving quickly to bring to market its 'iPod merge' solution for the airline industry, and reveals that its first customer will offer the product to economy-class passengers.

Several carriers, including Avianca, Air New Zealand, Swiss International Air Lines and United Airlines, have already signed on for Panasonic's basic 'iPod connect' offering called eXPort, which allows audio and video to be sent from a passenger's iPod or iPhone to the IFE system while simultaneously powering and charging the device.

The eXPort solution consists of two main components - an eXPort jack that is installed in the seat and an eXPort cable, which connects the iPod to the eXPort jack.

Singapore Airlines was the first carrier to offer this service to coach passengers.

However, Panasonic's technology roadmap calls for introduction of 'iPod merge', which goes a step further by allowing content metadata to be integrated or 'consumed' into the graphical user interface (GUI) and displayed to the passenger via the IFE screen.

Panasonic director of corporate sales and marketing Neil James recently described how iPod merge will work. "The iPod content could be placed anywhere and in any manner within the GUI, but would typically be under a category for 'personal media' and a sub-category for 'iPod'. The passenger would see the content divided into major categories (movies; video; music; audio books; pictures; etc.) then sub-categories (genres). Selecting an item of content would cause a command to be sent to the iPod to execute playback and the content would be reproduced via the IFE system to the passenger," says James.

"Thus, there is no 'direct' control of the iPod via the IFE system, meaning, the navigation menu of the iPod is not reproduced."

Panasonic expects its iPod merge solution to be completed later this year, around the September timeframe. "Our first customer will install iPod Merge in economy class," says the company, noting that the customer has already installed eXPort.

Hawaiian Airlines recently announced its selection of Panasonic's eX2 IFE system for 10 new Airbus A330 aircraft. The carrier will offer USB ports to every passenger but will offer eXPort only in its premium-class cabins.

"The question we get is 'can we download iTunes and such', [and the answer is] 'unfortunately no', but it does give us the opportunity if the market changes to do that sort of digital download'," says Hawaiian senior director - IFE systems development and applications management Rich Coskey.