INTERIORS: Panasonic goes looking for trouble

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In-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) hardware giant Panasonic Avionics is taking trouble-shooting to a whole new level with the creation of a new mission control center that is perpetually connected to the firm's customer support offices around the world and its OEM facilities.

The center, based at the manufacturer's Lake Forest, California headquarters, is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week "so we now have a group of people here perpetually in contact with all of those bases around the world and their job is to proactively address concerns", says Panasonic Avionics executive director of corporate sales and marketing Neil James.

"Historically, we would raise a trouble ticket and it would be submitted into the engineering organization and they would deal with it as fast as they could. What we're saying is we now have a dedicated mission control looking for trouble. Panasonic's goal is to close eight out of ten issues within one working day," says James.

Data is gleaned through a variety of mechanisms. For aircraft not fitted with connectivity systems, Panasonic uses a Sneakernet system to take data off aircraft on a regular basis via USB stick or floppy disk and upload it into the firm's database. However, some 500 aircraft with Panasonic hardware are equipped with the firm's so-called eXcell cell modems, and "every time the aircraft lands it uses the cell modem to download the data to mission control", says James.

"If an airline has Inmarsat SwiftBroadband [connectivity] or another form of communications then each one of those aircraft can be tracked by mission control in real time. Some airlines have critical faults sent over ACARS if they are happy to deal with that expense," says James.

Lufthansa is testing Panasonic's Ku-band satellite-based global communications suite (GCS) on four widebody aircraft. These aircraft are currently being tracked by the mission control centre, as will all future eXConnect-fitted Lufthansa aircraft. "We have a three dimensional world map and it is tracking aircraft that are flying with GCS. We can click on that aircraft, look at its status in real-time and troubleshoot any issues that might be visible and detect any trends," says James.

"Effectively, the system on the aircraft becomes a node on the airline's IT network, so it almost becomes irrelevant that it's in the air. So you can intrusively go in and proactively make changes or adjustments, or push software patches or software fixes to that aircraft, and then the export or 'pull' if you like can facilitate everything from real-time credit card transactions to CRM issues being taken care of in real time from the ground."

If an airline does not have broadband connectivity "we don't want to say that mission control is not for you, but in instances where there is a lower band of connectivity, we need to think about the least cost of routing. We are really successful today in the Sneakernet world. But it steps up exponentially when you get to a broadband solution."