Wireless warriors

This story is sourced from Flight Daily News
Subscribe today »

Portable in-flight entertainment providers are positioning themselves as serious pretenders to a throne which has, up until now, been steadfastly occupied by embedded IFE system vendors.

Also, regardless of whether airlines choose to hand out tablet computers to passengers in flight or rely on passengers to use their own devices to access entertainment content, demand for wireless IFE solutions is expected to soar.

“I have never seen a market as active as this one is today. Absolutely every airline wants to talk about it,” says Ciaran Bernard, vice-president sales and marketing at wireless IFE provider Flight Focus. The Singapore-based company’s solution involves installing an on-board server and in-cabin wi-fi network to enable content such as movies, television programmes, newspapers and shopping catalogues to be streamed either to passenger- or airline-owned electronic devices.

The Flight Focus system has been installed across Air China’s Airbus A330 fleet to replace the carrier’s seat-back IFE system for economy-class passengers. Premium cabins still have the embedded systems, however. Bernard believes the fact that Air China has been able to stream IFE content to over 300 passengers at the same time should silence the critics arguing that the quality and consistency of wireless-based IFE solutions cannot match that of embedded IFE systems.

“Prior to Air China proving the system, people were sceptical that you could serve a whole cabin simultaneously. Air China has proven that you can,” he says.

Flight Focus also recently signed up Netherlands-based charter operator Corendon Dutch Airlines as a customer. The carrier will use the system to stream IFE content to passengers’ own devices across its Boeing 737-800 fleet, and is also eyeing potential ancillary revenue opportunities presented by the service.

“At a time when almost all passengers are carrying their own smartphone or tablet, the Flight Focus solution will enable us to enhance the passenger experience at a fraction of the cost of traditional in-flight entertainment systems, while also helping us increase revenue,” says Corendon technical director Rob Smakman.

Flight Focus hopes to announce another customer shortly, and Bernard says the company is “definitely targeting 1,000 to 2,000 aircraft over the next three years”.

One drawback of wireless IFE systems often cited by critics is the reluctance of Hollywood film studios to allow early window movie content to be streamed to passengers’ own devices. While there is “no problem” with providing early window content to airline-owned devices distributed to passengers on the aircraft, Bernard acknowledges that it becomes more complicated when passengers wish to view such content on their own tablets and smartphones. This requires the passenger to download the airline’s IFE app to their device prior to boarding the aircraft.

Despite this, Bernard expects the cost savings of opting for wireless solutions over seat-back IFE systems will drive demand from airlines. He puts the cost of installing a typical embedded IFE system on a widebody at between $1.5 million and $2 million per aircraft, versus $150,000-200,000 for its wireless equivalent. And then there are the weight savings, with a standard embedded IFE system tipping the scales at 1,000kg (2,210lb) per aircraft, versus 35kg for a wireless solution, says Bernard. However, weight is being significantly cut by some embedded IFE providers (see box).

Bernard also estimates that airlines spend around $200,000 per aircraft per year on maintaining embedded IFE equipment, and highlights the long-term commitment required for installing a seat-back system in a world where consumer electronics are in a state of constant evolution. “You’re looking at retaining these systems on aircraft for seven years, so the displays are always way behind what consumer electronics have,” he says. “A lot of passengers now, even when there’s embedded IFE on board, still use their own tablets.”

Another company looking to break into the portable IFE market is UK-based Solid State Inflight, which removes the requirement to store content on an on-board server by providing airlines with Apple iPads preloaded with entertainment content. The company has secured Hollywood approval to provide early window movies, and boasts of an “end-to-end, seamless managed service”, which includes getting the iPads on and off the aircraft and remotely updating the IFE content as often as requested by the airline, as well as charging and cleaning the devices. The charging service is provided by Solid State partner Lock ‘n’ Charge Technologies.

“The airline never touches the iPad until the flight attendant hands it to the passenger,” says Solid State’s Mark O’Brien, who co-founded the business along with partner Arthur Drewitt. Although Drewitt believes that “the world will go to streaming”, wi-fi limitations mean “an all-in-one device with content preloaded is the way to go at the moment”.

Solid State has secured a launch customer – Swiss high-end charter operator PrivatAir, which has installed the system on a single Boeing 737 and will gradually roll it out across its 737 and Boeing 757 fleets. A second customer will be announced shortly, which O’Brien says is a European carrier “with both short- and long-haul aircraft”. The iPad-based solution will replace the unnamed airline’s existing overhead monitor IFE system.

Other more established players in the wireless IFE market include Lufthansa Systems with its BoardConnect solution, which streams IFE content either to in-seat screens, carrier-owned devices or passengers’ own devices, and US-based Gogo with its Gogo Vision product, which streams to passengers’ wi-fi-enabled devices.

Gogo chief commercial officer Ash ElDifrawi, however, does not see Gogo Vision as an “either/or proposition”, but notes that “for very little or no cost and very little weight it allows passengers to use their own devices” to access content. Gogo Vision is an attractive option to mixed-fleet carriers and airlines that want to provide embedded systems in their premium cabins and wireless in economy class, says ElDifrawi.

The big question hanging over the portable IFE market is whether a service that is becoming increasingly popular on short- and medium-haul flights will ever take off in the long-haul market, where embedded IFE systems are the mainstay.

Flight Focus’s Bernard believes that in the near term the biggest market for wireless IFE will be carriers operating shorter sectors. At the moment, “long-haul premium carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Emirates still feel the need for embedded systems”, says Bernard, but in the medium-term “those guys will start adding wireless as a complement”.

This sentiment is echoed by Solid State’s O’Brien, who points out that while the short- and medium-haul sector still represents “the majority of the marketplace for portable IFE”, legacy carriers are becoming increasingly interested in using iPads as back-ups for instances in which their embedded systems break down. “Airlines want [tablets] for service recovery – they like to have a number of devices on board for premium passengers if their seat-back systems fail,” he says.

BoardConnect senior vice-president Norbert Mueller believes the long-haul low-cost market is “much more similar to the medium-haul market we’re serving now”, and could be where long-haul wireless IFE begins to take hold. “It’s an interesting market and we’re looking into it,” he says.

Factors to be taken into consideration when weighing up the pros and cons of offering portable IFE solutions on long-haul flights include ensuring the hand-held devices remain sufficiently charged for the duration of the flight and whether, from a comfort standpoint, passengers would want to spend long periods of time watching content on a tablet, as opposed to a fixed screen on the back of the seat in front.

On the former point, O’Brien points out that many airlines now have in-seat power points and USB outlets on their aircraft, so it is “simply a matter of plugging it in”. He adds that “the iPad battery gets better and better all the time”, and the majority of passengers will not be using these devices for the whole of the flight anyway. “Very few passengers use [tablet devices] for 100% of the flight. In most cases, airlines do not need an external battery, but in cases where they do, we provide external batteries for the return journey,” says O’Brien.

On the issue of comfort, Drewitt says Solid State supplies iPad cases that fold into a stand so the device does not need to be held. He also points to companies such as Smart Tray International and Skycast Solutions, which are marketing products specifically designed to hold personal electronic devices on aircraft. Italian seat supplier Geven has also designed a tablet holder into the back of its new Comoda business-class seats, with carriers TransAsia and South African Airways already signed up.

With the possible exception of low-cost carriers entering the long-haul arena, it appears that for the foreseeable future at least, portable IFE solutions will largely be restricted to shorter flights, or as a back-up to embedded systems on longer sectors. However, as this market evolves and the proliferation of smartphones and tablets continues, the longer term picture could change. As Bernard puts it, wireless IFE “has the potential to be a real disruptive force” in the market.


High fibre diet

With wireless in-flight entertainment providers nipping at their heels and boasting of lightweight and cheaper solutions, embedded IFE manufacturers have stepped up their game and are shaving significant weight off their products.

California-based Lumexis, for instance, uses optical fibres to connect the server with the seat-back screens and provide an embedded IFE system which does not require heavy equipment boxes between the two points. The fibre-to-the-screen (FTTS) system is “a third of the weight and half the cost of legacy systems”, says Lumexis vice-president sales Jon Norris.

“A legacy system weighs 6kg per seat, ours weighs 2.1-2.2kg per seat,” says Norris, adding that “this is done without any impact on the functionality of the system”. Lumexis advertises FTTS as being the lightest, highest capacity and most reliable embedded IFE system on the market.

Norris appears unconcerned by the potential threat posed by wireless IFE providers. “The push for wireless streaming IFE will be as unsuccessful as connectivity,” he says, adding that “we don’t see on the ground any consistent service from streaming providers”. While he believes that wireless IFE “has a future in terms of supplementing” seat-back systems, Norris is sceptical about its ability to provide a reliable and consistent service to passengers.

“Until the technology is really proven it’s going to be difficult to be consistent,” he says. This will result in an “extremely frustrating process for the passenger”, says Norris, leading to passengers requesting help from flight attendants. This, he believes, would effectively mean that cabin crew would have to become “IT support desks”.

Aircraft interiors giant Zodiac Aerospace also became a player in the lightweight embedded IFE market, through its acquisition of The IMS Company in January 2013. IMS – now known as Zodiac Inflight Innovations – developed the RAVE Centric IFE system, which stores content independently in each seat-back and features removable display units. Like FTTS, RAVE is also marketed as being half the cost of traditional IFE systems, and considerably lighter.