Big change is afoot in the world of in-flight entertainment. For a start, the sector has stopped calling itself the IFE industry. Even the best-established names, such as Panasonic Avionics and Thales, now consider themselves part of the IFEC community. The C stands for communications or connectivity - technology that has assumed a new level of importance as a growing number of airlines have adopted systems from Aircell, AeroMobile, OnAir and Row 44, despite a history of failures in the field, including Boeing's Connexion service.
This airborne connectivity boon, coupled with the proliferation among travellers of smartphones and other personal electronic devices (PEDs), has led some industry observers to suggest that embedded IFE could be headed for the scrapheap.
Prof John Hansman, who heads the International Technology Center for Air Transport at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put the spotlight on installed IFE recently when he suggested airlines would be well placed to provide the facilities for passengers to access media stored on servers or the internet through their own devices.
In a fully connected cabin, crew might know what drink a passenger wants before they even ask
But although standalone connectivity will always attract a certain clientele, IFE manufacturers do not fear the technology will cause their demise.
On the contrary, as the industry prepares to attend the annual World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) conference and exhibition on 5-8 October in Palm Springs, California, major stakeholders are discussing how to harness connectivity and provide airlines with something new - the ability to personalise the passenger experience in real time.
"As an embedded IFE systems provider, we don't feel threatened by connectivity," says Neil James, Panasonic executive director of corporate sales and marketing. "We want to embrace it. Connectivity on board the aircraft is going to revolutionise the cabin experience in the way the internet has revolutionised the way we operate at home and in the office. I don't think there is one application on our aircraft that isn't enhanced by connectivity. All the opportunities there are to engage the passenger in the IFE and in their experience on board can and will be enhanced by connectivity."
It is not hard to see why in-flight connectivity is taking centre stage in the IFE world. In the USA, where a dedicated air-to-ground network exists and where IFE expenditure has traditionally been a hard pill for airlines to swallow, Aircell has secured seven customers for its Gogo broadband internet system. An eighth customer, Canadian carrier Air Canada, is expected to begin trialling Gogo this year.
A few US airlines have bucked the broadband trend and gone for an initial offering of live satellite television and basic email connectivity. But the momentum behind airborne Wi-Fi in the USA is undeniable as even low-cost stalwart Southwest Airlines is jumping into connectivity with an agreement to equip its 550-strong fleet with Row 44's Ku-band satellite-based system.
But there may be some clouds on the horizon for these connectivity players because the pay-for-service business model does not seem to be gaining as much traction as expected.
"It seems that people are now coming round to the view, which we've expressed since 2006, that there won't be enough paying users of in-flight broadband for both network providers and airlines to make a profit on the costs of deploying equipment and running a network, as Boeing found out after spending somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion on Connexion," says consultant Tim Farrar.
"Our view was that only airlines who are interested in offering a differentiated service would be able to justify the costs involved. However, to date the leading service providers - Aircell and Row 44 - have apparently not only been installing the equipment for free, but have also been offering a cut of revenues to the airline. Its no wonder that this 'no lose' proposition has led to fleetwide installation commitments from most of the major US airlines."
The touch-screen handset is designed to work with Panasonic's X Series IFE systems
Good Karma from panasonic
Panasonic Avionics has created a touch-screen handset that enables passengers to send emails, order food and access entertainment without letting the programming on their in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen skip a beat.
Informally dubbed Karma, the menu-driven, wired handset is designed to work with Panasonic's X Series IFE systems, but "it is also designed with the future in mind", says director of product line management Marshal Perlman.
"One of the major benefits of the touch-screen handset is that it is essentially a canvas that will give airlines the flexibility to adapt as times change."
Functionality can be added via a simple software update, Perlman notes.
Customers have expressed the desire to install the handset on a multitude of single-aisle and twin-aisle aircraft as part of IFE installations for both line-fit and retrofit aircraft. The system will be flying next year, although the final design has not yet been revealed.
Asked if Karma will ever be offered in wireless form, Perlman says: "Anything is possible and my team will continue to study the needs of the market. But it is important to remember that, unlike mobile phones which travel from airplane to rental car to hotel, the touch-screen handset is intended to be used at your seat.
"Wireless technology brings with it certain advantages and disadvantages, but I can tell you that the human factors testing we've performed to date has not resulted in any problems with known use case scenarios."
Aircell has never divulged the details of its arrangements with airlines.
Outside the USA, an array of airlines in Asia, Europe and the Middle East are fitting their aircraft with Inmarsat L-band satellite-supported mobile phone connectivity systems on offer from rivals AeroMobile and OnAir.
Premium UAE carrier Emirates has equipped nearly 50% of its fleet with AeroMobile connectivity, enabling passengers to use their cell phones in-flight to make and receive voice calls and short messages. Meanwhile, Irish low-cost giant Ryanair is equipping its aircraft with OnAir's GSM/GPRS service, which is supported by Inmarsat's higher-bandwidth 432kbit/s SwiftBroadband service.
SwiftBroadband cannot give passengers the sort of full-blown, high-speed internet experience they are used to on the ground, but it can support "managed internet" offerings, such as Arinc's Oi system or OnAir Internet, which is due to go live on Qantas's Airbus A380s by the end of the year. "We are not talking about downloading movies, but it will be more than enough to surf the web," says OnAir chief executive Benoit Debains.
Inmarsat's head of marketing aeronautical business, Lars Ringertz, says: "We're not sexy and we're not possibly the flavour of the day, but the certified avionics list [for SwiftBroadband] is constantly getting longer."
Also on the international front, carriers are being offered a number of Ku-band successors to Connexion, including Row 44, whose high-speed system has been chosen by Scandinavian budget carrier Norwegian for its Boeing 737-800 fleet, and ViaSat.
Aircell says it is developing a Ku system to enable current and future airline customers to offer in-flight broadband on overseas flights. "The development of the technology isn't quite as advanced as ATG [air to ground], but it's getting close, and we remain focused on the offshore, over-water market," says Aircell executive vice-president airlines, John Happ.
In a departure from its traditional role as a supplier of IFE hardware and software, Panasonic is also wearing the new hat of connectivity service provider.
The manufacturer is understood to be preparing to reignite Lufthansa's CBB service, and has inked other undisclosed deals for its Ku-band eXConnect system, which forms the basis of a global communications suite (GCS) comprising broadband internet, worldwide in-flight television distribution, and in-flight mobile phone connectivity. Mobile connectivity is provided in partnership with AeroMobile.
Panasonic's GCS can be adopted in whole or in part, as a standalone system or integrated with the company's eX2 IFE system.
In contrast to Panasonic, Thales' connectivity strategy centres on SwiftBroadband. Vice-president of sales and marketing Jeff Sare says: "We don't advertise our connectivity solution as boldly as the competition, but we are actually in partnership with [Airbus/SITA joint venture] OnAir and already have 18 customers flying with our satcom units, and, unlike our competition, we manufacture our satcom unit. It happens to be an L-band unit, which we believe is the right solution today that allows you to have worldwide coverage and utilise a managed way of working with it that provides a broad variety of feature functions and capabilities at an easily managed cost."
Airbus shares Thales' view that there are technical limitations to Ku-band. "Airbus remains unconvinced about the Ku-band satcom business case, and is concerned that the continual chasing of more bandwidth could be the next dotcom bubble waiting to burst," says Airbus Operations vice-president cabin design office, Jonathan Norris. "There may be one or two passengers that want to download streaming media through the aircraft's internet connection, but we believe the majority of passengers would be very content if they could use SMS, access their BlackBerry and use webmail during their journey."
A new arrival on the IFEC scene, Lumexis, is taking a more neutral position on the matter. Its corporate charter has been to become the on-board network for every kind of application and communication source, but not to provide the off-aircraft links.
"There is a plethora of diverse service providers, including satellite and terrestrial channels of all flavours, and we have committed to connect to any or all of them that our airline customers want us to tie in, but not to compete with them," says chief executive Douglas Cline. "So, in a sense, we are the most connectable of full-functionality IFE suppliers."
Lumexis has secured a full-fleet customer for its potentially revolutionary fibre optic-based fibre-to-the-screen (FTTS) system, after trialling it on a single US Airways A320.
Although they may disagree on what connectivity links should support onboard systems, IFE manufacturers are eager to bring connected IFE to airlines.
IFE systems are by no means "solely entertainment today", says Sare, but they will be less so in the future. "They will meet all those needs for connecting with your friends, family and the airline to the passenger on the plane and that's really where I see it. Connectivity, that buzzword in the industry, is a big part of this. An IFE system five years from now that is not connected to the ground wirelessly in some way is likely to be considered behind the times."
Thales is now working on an integrated IFE system that embraces OnAir technology. The company's latest-generation TopSeries AVOD system, which is being retrofitted to a number of Korean Air Airbus and Boeing widebodies, is "connectivity-ready", says Sare.
JetBlue and Continental break from the pack
"If everyone is zigging on in-flight internet, then Continental Airlines and JetBlue Airways are zagging." That's how Nate Quigley, chief executive of JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV, describes the two carriers' decision to focus on giving passengers live satellite television over seat-back screens instead of high-speed connectivity via personal electronic devices on domestic flights.
JetBlue has always offered live TV free of charge and believes the service gives it a competitive edge. But a few years ago, management decided to let "the eagle out of the canary cage" by allowing LiveTV to sell its products indiscriminately. LiveTV secured its first US legacy airline customer when Continental signed up to install the firm's newest live television system, LTV3, across its Boeing domestic fleet.
Offering nearly 80 channels of live television - at a fee of $6 in economy and free in first class - LTV3 trumps JetBlue's current 36-channel offering from a technological standpoint. If content licenses can be arranged, LTV3 could one day bring as many as 200 channels into Continental's aircraft cabins, says Quigley.
To augment their live television service, JetBlue and Continental intend to roll out LiveTV's basic, air-to-ground (ATG)-based Kiteline email system, which has been trialled on a single JetBlue A320 since December 2007. But, unlike many of their counterparts in the US airline industry, neither carrier has formalised a plan to offer in-flight broadband internet.
"It is clear that the trend is going in the direction of Wi-Fi," says Continental chief executive Larry Kellner. "It is unclear how heavy that usage is. Our goal has been to get LiveTV on our domestic fleet and to get BlackBerrys to work, so basically you could get BlackBerrys or iPhones that have wireless capabilities and get those messages - that's what Kiteline is.
"Our hope is we do that at no charge. If we need a broader-band solution, and we'll watch and listen to our customers, we'll put one on. We'd like to do that in concert with LiveTV if that's the decision on where we need to go."
Quigley says LiveTV intends to become an important player in the in-flight broadband industry. "But we think the trends on the ground really matter," he adds. "On the ground, people want more and more bits and are willing to pay less and less for it. The connectivity you put on the airplane now is going to have to stay there for a long time."
To that end, the company now believes the bandwidth and costs associated with bringing Ka-band connectivity to the USA are more attractive than those of the air-to-ground and Ku-band-based in-flight broadband systems provided by Aircell and Row 44, respectively.
"We think Aircell doesn't have enough bits and Row 44's bits will be too expensive. With Ka, I think you can finally make the business model work," says Quigley, noting that there is already a Ka satellite infrastructure in place, and new Ka satellites will be launched in 2010 and 2011.
"I just don't think anyone should be surprised if a Ka-band solution flies in 2010," he adds.
There is little doubt that smartphones, laptops and other PEDs will play a significant role in connecting airlines to passengers throughout their journey - pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight. Progress is already being made to incorporate electronically-enabled aircraft cabins into a larger paperless information management system of the future .
Crucially, however, as technology progresses, the IFE screen - and even the IFE handset - will become one of the ways an airline can connect to passengers.
Patrick Brannelly, vice-president for passenger communications at Emirates, which offers embedded Panasonic IFE across its fleet, says: "I think things like SMS will obviously move to personal devices because it is more convenient, but if you look at what Panasonic has already done, it has moved the system from just being an entertainment system to a proper node on the network of the airline."
Thales' Sare adds: "If I, as a passenger, happen to interact with my phone because I like it, I'll interact that way. Or if I don't carry one, I might use the touch-screen in front of me, or if I'm the guy who gets to ride in first class, maybe I'll use my remote control provided by the airline to do that on the 23in or 32in screen in front of me."
Airframers are also deeply involved in the connectivity discussion. Airbus, for example, believes the connectivity infrastructure should become part of the backbone of the aircraft to enable a wider range of IFE and connectivity functionality.
"As an enabler to realise these benefits, our philosophy is to separate the connectivity system (Wi-Fi and/or GSM) from the choice of IFE system," says Airbus' Norris.
He adds: "This separation would give our airline customers the option to choose between embedded 'classical' IFE systems, semi-embedded or fully portable IFE systems, or even rely solely on passengers' own PEDs to bring entertainment content onto the aircraft."
Whatever the approach, connectivity will pave the way for the IFEC community to truly personalise the passenger experience and enable airlines to achieve the full benefits of having a connected, yet captive, audience.
Industry players see a day in the not-too-distant future when passengers will be able to access their own personal profile, travel itinerary, pre-selected cached and live entertainment, voice and data communications, social networking and shopping through the in-seat, seat-back or portable screen in front of them or through their own devices.
Using information gleaned at the point of ticket sale, or from loyalty programmes, airlines will be able to tailor the in-flight content - including advertising - to their passengers' interests and tastes.
The connected cabin will be a place where flight attendants, armed with wireless devices, will know what a passenger wants to drink before he or she even asks, and where complaints can be handled quickly, receipts dispensed tidily and reservations changed at the touch of a button.
"Airlines want to establish a personalised, one-to-one relationship with their passengers," says IFEC consultant Michael Planey. "In my experience, that has been the holy grail of the market.
"The reason an embedded IFE system is valuable is because it touches every seat, and therefore every passenger on the aircraft. Even if everyone brought their own devices on board, some of them may not have registered and are receiving messages [from the airline], whereas you can push everything to the passengers via the IFE system and be sure a larger percentage of passengers will see it at some point."
Former WAEA executive director Richard Owen observes: "What Thales or Panasonic or any of the airlines are doing with IFE is that they want to be able to continue to attract eyeballs to the system they have invested in.
"One of the ways to do that, as connectivity becomes more commonplace, is to connect with the applications that people bring on board. If you don't adapt and change your products according to changes in technology, you become obsolete."
One way to turn "connected IFE" into a money-maker would be to offer passengers a managed or "walled" web experience, suggests John Wensveen, dean of Dowling College's School of Aviation in New York. This would enable airlines to enter interactive marketing agreements with partners, such as rental car companies, restaurants and tourist attraction vendors, and get a slice of each transaction made in-flight, he says.
But to do that, airlines may need to look at revenue strategies that differ from the standard fee-for-service business model currently employed by Aircell, for example.
Shashank Nigam, chief executive of global airline marketing and branding consultancy SimpliFlying, says: "I'm of the view that in-flight Wi-Fi should be provided free of charge and airlines should look at it as a platform to be used to generate more revenue. Once you have people on the internet, whether via PEDs or the IFE screen, the airline can charge a transaction fee.
"If I'm just checking my email, maybe I don't have to pay, but if I'm accessing Facebook, getting on TV or downloading something from Amazon's wireless reading device, Kindle - the things people normally do - airlines could charge a commission.
Korean Air is launch customer for Thales' newest TopSeries IFE system, which is being retrofitted to Airus and Boeing widebodies
"So the deal would be between the airline and Amazon, for example, and every time someone shops from this IP address, the airline makes commission. It's like Disneyland or Universal Studios, but you turn that around - you enter for free and then you pay for the things you want."
Airlines could also use connected applications to differentiate their in-flight experience for first-class customers or frequent flyers.
"The airline has the most brand-loyal customer captive for a certain amount of time," says Nigam. "With the advent of in-flight Wi-Fi and all the social networking available, the whole branding experience has improved tremendously."
Virgin America is a prime example of a carrier that is using in-flight connectivity to take its embedded IFE system to the next level in a bid to improve the passenger experience and increase revenue.
The San Francisco-based carrier's Panasonic-supplied, Linux-based "Red" IFE system offers touch-screen and remote-control interactivity with various content options, including live satellite television, cached speciality channels, on-demand films, premium TV, on-demand music, video games, Google Maps functionality, and a first-of-its-kind, on-demand menu.
"Another thing we've been exploring is making Red more of a concierge customised experience for people," says Virgin America, which has already equipped its fleet of Airbus narrowbodies with Aircell's Gogo system. "You can create your own playlist and order your food now, but potentially, down the road, linking that with people's frequent-flyer programme accounts, you could customise people's preferences and customise planning. By offering more integration with the connectivity side, you have a whole range of things you can do in real time."
Real-time credit card authentication, using the Gogo air-to-ground link, will also enable the carrier to offer higher-end shopping items, says Virgin America.
Aircell's Happ adds: "Virgin America started with IFE, moved quickly to Aircell, and really all along has also seen it as part of its strategy to intertwine those two and create a different value proposition."
Virgin America is using IFEC, together with a distinctive cabin interior and style, to define its brand in a stand-out way.
Airlines are starting to understand that cabin interiors and technology are part of their branding, says Nigel Goode, a founding member of premier aircraft interior design firm Priestmangoode. But the technology "should not be a gimmick and shouldn't be there for no reason", he says.
One example of where form meets function is the I-Tech-made virtual keyboard, which Priestmangoode offers to airlines that are bringing in-flight mobile connectivity aboard their aircraft.
Using laser technology, a bright red image of a keyboard is projected from a device that connects to a handheld mobile phone or personal digital assistant. Detection technology based on optical recognition allows users to tap the images of the keys, so the virtual keyboard behaves like a real one.
"The whole purpose of using technology in an aircraft or in any [air transport] project is to make the passenger's journey considerably easier," says Goode. "When we're designing something, we're looking at where the problems are and the issues people have. If [an airline] can use technology to help you, then that's a really good use for it."
EUROPE EYES E-ENABLED CABIN
A sweeping European project that aims to maximise efficiencies in commercial air transport and improve the passenger experience - in the air and on the ground - is nearing completion after three years' work and a successful live demonstration.
Funded in part by the European Commission, the so-called E-Cab project is a co-operative effort between Airbus, EADS, Cranfield University, OnAir, SITA, TriaGnoSys and dozens of other partners and stakeholders, which together are seeking to create "paperless information management of the future" by interconnecting electronically enabled end-to-end logistic chains in four areas: moving people through airports, passenger services, freight handling and catering services.
TriaGnoSys managing director Axel Jahn says E-Cab ideas and technology covering, for example, mobile check-in and boarding, RFID luggage tracking and meal pre-selection "already pre-existed but no one really combined this to create a communications network that covers the complete travel experience of passengers".
A complete end-to-end set-up was demonstrated to leading European airlines and airports at the Airbus cabin test centre in June, he says.
OnAir provides in-flight mobile and inernet services
For its part, TriaGnoSys showed how its in-flight 3G system could provide a range of passenger and crew communication applications, while a communications manager could control all satellite-based passenger, cabin crew and IFE data communications to and from the aircraft during flights.
"As a passenger, you should have the same perception, the same knowledge, whether you're using a smartphone like the iPhone, a laptop or even the in-flight entertainment system," says Jahn. "Just as your smartphone could be updated with live content, including the latest flight and airport information, movies, music and advertising, using satellite communications, so too could the IFE system.
"In aircraft where no IFE screens exist, you would need high-speed access to see in-flight videos, which means higher data rates for mobile devices, so we're looking at how to move part of the ground architecture to the aircraft to give you the same experience as an IFE system."
The new ground components in aircraft are GSM data serving nodes, as well as content servers.
Because the architecture and protocol for the onboard network are completely agnostic, in-flight connectivity could be supported by an L-band, Ku-band or air-to-ground (ATG) link. "We could do a handover from the different links or split the bandwidth from different links without the passenger seeing," says Jahn.
E-Cab partners hope airlines and airports will embrace some of these technologies to improve the passenger experience and gain efficiencies through cost savings.
Reiner Rueckwald, E-Cab project manager at Airbus, says the successful demonstration "paves the way for the European aviation industry to provide a step-change in passenger service and the efficiencies it can achieve".
The project partners will now start to commercialise their developments.