PARIS AIR SHOW: Wireless at hand as Thales eyes future cabin

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Wireless capabilities that would give flight attendants much better control of the cabin environment are envisioned by in-flight entertainment (IFE) manufacturer Thales.

But the firm continues to see wired IFE as the optimized solution for passenger entertainment.

Airlines that offer in-seat IFE require the capability to provide multiple gigabits of data to aircraft. For this sort of activity, "cable still works best", says Alan Pellegrini, general manager of Thales' California-based in-flight business.

However, as Thales looks to the future, it sees wireless touch-screen devices in the hands of flight attendants to control mood lighting, inform a passenger that his or her food will be delivered shortly, turn IFE services on and off, and address problems by remotely resetting the system.

But there are other ways to use wireless to customize a passenger's experience, says Thales consultant Tracy Powell. Using information gleaned from loyalty programme surveys, an airline could change the "skin" or face of a passenger's screen to suit their tastes.

If a flight attendant knows that a passenger is an avid golfer, for example, advertising about that sport could be directed to the passenger's screen.

Thales and rival Panasonic are no strangers to wireless IFE. At the behest of Boeing, each firm developed wireless solutions for the 787. But in 2007 Boeing scuppered plans to fit wireless IFE to the 787 due to a number of factors.

Both IFE manufacturers later cited concerns that wireless IFE required big trade-offs in bandwidth. Those concerns still remain, although neither Thales nor Panasonic have totally ruled out a future offering.

"I think wireless has its place but so do the traditional technologies," says Pellegrini.

Bombardier is studying wireless IFE for its planned CSeries, which enters into service in 2013. Airbus is also understood to be studying wireless IFE, possibly for the A350.

Pellegrini says Thales is working with Airbus to define A350 IFE system requirements. The company has been "pre-selected" for offerability on the widebody aircraft along with Panasonic, says Pellegrini.

"They [Airbus] may consider a third player," reveals the Thales executive.

Thales, meanwhile, is prepared to deliver its wired TopSeries IFE solution for several 787 customers. While slips the 787's schedule has caused Thales to push scale back its production effort, but the company "is holding inventory on behalf of airlines for Boeing", says Pellegrini.