Thales opens Heathrow facility to support BA IFE deal

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Thales has opened a support office at London Heathrow Airport as part of its deal to supply British Airways with TopSeries in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) systems for the airline's on-order Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 fleets.

The London facility, leased from BA, will be used by the French supplier to manage maintenance and repair services for the UK flag-carrier's IFE equipment, as well as lead TopSeries sales and marketing efforts to UK and Ireland-based airlines. It currently hosts 12 Thales employees, although this could increase to 18.

Although deliveries to BA of A380s and 787s will not begin until next year, the carrier has already equipped around 10 777s with TopSeries IFE. After selecting TopSeries in 2008, BA last year signed a 10-year component repair agreement with Thales underwhich the airline will repair its own IFE equipment - as well as some systems owned by third-party customers - at its engineering facility in Llantrisant, Wales.

The deal marks the first time that Thales has entered into a support arrangement which enables the customer airline to perform maintenance of IFE equipment under subcontract to the manufacturer.

The Thales Heathrow facility, which will oversee BA Engineering's IFE maintenance work, has European Aviation Safety Agency part 145 approval.

"We very much have a philosophy in our IFE business that we want to invest in a significant local presence," says Alan Pellegrini, CEO for Thales' IFEC business.

Andrew Musgrave, Thales regional vice-president for the UK and Ireland, says: "The key thing is obviously supporting the BA fleet, but we have other IFE customers that fly into Heathrow, so we see Heathrow as a very important hub in terms of our support and maintenance operation.

"What you're seeing is the embryo of an organisation that's going to grow. We are very much focused on Heathrow, and Gatwick is [nearby]."

BA director of engineering Garry Copeland says the support deal with Thales marks "a huge step forward in our partnering with key suppliers. We're doing something with Thales here that we've never done before, so Thales is embedded in our organisation. We've established a really leading edge commercial relationship. We've also kept the work in-house and in the UK, which is hugely important for us."

Copeland says BA also aims to expand its third-party IFE support work.

"Our aspiration within BA Engineering is to grow our third-party business to 20% of our workload," he says. "It's currently hovering around 14%. We already have quite a bit of experience working with IFE systems from other operators and we've already had some Thales system work from other operators."

Securing third-party contracts, he says, will "genuinely demonstrate whether we're competitive or not because we will only do maintenance for other people providing we can be competitive and make a reasonable living out of it."

The response from BA's passengers to the upgraded TopSeries IFE has been encouraging, he adds.

"We're now rolling the aircraft out really rapidly and we're seeing an absolutely phenomenal response from our customers," says Copeland.

"We've seen record levels of customer satisfaction - way above 80%. Dispatch reliability levels are consistently above 99.9%, so it's really a step change in terms of what we've been able to offer our customers in terms of quality and reliability.

"It won't be too long before we'll have 60-plus aircraft with this system - 777-200/300s, 787s and A380s."

BA is yet to decide whether to upgrade the IFE systems on its 747-400 and 767-300 fleets, as this will depend on the outcome of its current evaluation of the Airbus A350 and future developments of the 777 as potential replacement types, says Copeland.