There’s never a dull moment in the effervescent world of handheld IFE, writes BRENDAN GALLAGHER. With most of the credible players present here at the show, now’s the time to go hands-on

Handheld IFE has been by far the most mercurial part of the cabin systems industry in recent times, with a string of suppliers popping up from nowhere in pursuit of instant riches, only to find that making the formula work is easier said than done.

The run-up to AIX 2008 saw the customary flurry of announcement activity from the surviving players, with a new market leader showing signs of emerging for the first time since the sector was born five years ago, and an apparently moribund supplier coming back in full fighting form. The two are IMS, now claiming to be top dog in succession to digEcor, and AIRVOD , which earlier this year emerged from a self-imposed news blackout to claim a flying - if belated - start to its commercial operations.

silverjet cabin 
 Silverjet – the all-business class carrier has welcomed handheld IFE

Also adding to the gaiety of nations are e.Digital, which announced a new addition to an increasingly impressive customer list, and its old sparring partner digEcor, which named a list of carriers as users of its second-generation digEplayer XT. London-based Mezzo is setting up an operations centre in New Zealand, while the industry rumour machine suggests that Panasonic may be winning some and losing others.

“We believe we’re now the clear leader in this space,” Harry Gray, sales and marketing VP for California-based IMS, declared on the eve of the show. “If you put together the number, size and quality of the airlines we serve, our customer retention record, the number of units we have in service, our follow-on sales to existing customers and the positive trend in our sales, we’re Number 1.”

The announced IMS customer list comprises American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, US Airways, Eos, Air India, Royal Jordanian, LOT Polish, Jet Airways, Varig, TAM, Oasis Hong Kong, Sonair, and Transaero of Russia. Gray also confirms that rumours of a deal with United Airlines are correct, while the company has agreements in place or pending with several other carriers.

 Handheld options from IMS

Dublin-based AIRVOD went very quiet after declaring that it would make its first deliveries in 2006, prompting  some observers to conclude that the company had folded up its tent. “It took longer than planned to get our offering where we wanted it to be,” admitted chief executive Terence Bonar earlier this year. “But we started delivering players in the third quarter of last year, we have already shipped 3,000 units, and the order book is growing.”

Bonar said that AIRVOD launched its first programme, with Singaporean low-fare operator Tiger Airways, last May. Tiger currently operates about eight Airbus A320-200s, with a further 58 on order for its own use and that of its Australian and Korean sister companies. Passengers pay Sing$15 ($11) for the use of a player throughout the flight.

Then came a fleetwide deployment with Qantas-owned low-fare carrier Jetstar Airways, which operates 26 A320-200s, with a further 58 on order, and six A330-200s. It also has 17 A321-200s and 15 Boeing 787s on order.

“We replaced the first-generation digEcor system previously used,” said Bonar. “Jetstar now offers our player on domestic and long-haul flights, and we manage an end-to-end service comprising content packages in multiple languages and complete ground support.”

AIRVOD’s third announced customer to date is Geneva-based VIP charter operator PrivatAir, with a fleet comprising four Airbus A319s, a Boeing BBJ, a 737-800, a 757-200 and a 767-300ER. It also has a pair of 787s on order. “We introduced our system with PrivatAir last November,” said Bonar. “It has since been used by members of the British royal family and by Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s entourage.”

San Diego-based e.Digital said last week that its eVU device and associated services had been selected by French carrier Corsairfly. A member of the TUI Group, the Paris-headquartered airline flies two Airbus A330-200s and six 747-400s, the latter in high-density 587-seat configuration, to 30 destinations, including the French West Indies, Reunion Island, Mauritius, Madagascar, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Israel.

Though e.Digital, in common with most of its competitors, gives no numbers for the quantity of eVUs to be acquired by Corsairfly, it now has an unquestionably healthy customer base.

As well as Corsairfly, e.Digital deals in its own right with Air France, Alitalia, Lufthansa, Malaysia Airlines and Italian leisure carrier Neos Air. It also supplies the hardware for Mezzo’s turnkey IFE service, which has been adopted by British corporate and VIP charter operator Titan Airways, TUI Group charter carriers Arkefly of the Netherlands, Jetairfly (Belgium) and Thomsonfly (UK), British low-cost carriers Flyglobespan and, charter operator XL Airways and transatlantic premium-only specialist Silverjet.

e.Digital has long been at intellectual-property loggerheads with Utah-based digEcor. Last year the latter suffered the disappointment of seeing a high-profile customer, transatlantic premium-only carrier MAXjet, defaulting on its bills before finally going bust. But now digEcor is bouncing back, listing Garuda Indonesia, French premium-only operator L’Avion and Vision Airlines of the USA among the takers for its second-generation digEplayer XT, and alerting the market to new product announcements here in Hamburg.  

Earlier this month president Brad Heckel alluded to “new, less expensive product choices with some of the longest battery lives on the market.” The reference to battery life suggests that whatever digEcor has in the works is more likely to be an out-and-out handheld device rather than the oft-delayed semi-embedded digEsystem. The company has also announced a “nothing down” financing scheme for potential customers, and has declared that this year will see it transformed into a full-service IFE provider.

End-to-end turnkey service has always been the proposition from Britain’s Mezzo, which is also dangling the prospect of a new product. Last week the company said it would take the wraps off a new portable here, declaring it would offer “an unparalleled level of support, flexibility, reliability and customer service.”  

In the meantime, the company announced that at the beginning of this month it would open an operations centre in New Zealand to support customers in South-east Asia, Australasia and the South Pacific. It’s an intriguing piece of intelligence, to say the least, given that Mezzo doesn’t currently have any customers in those parts of the world.

But chief executive Dave Sampson plainly expects some action soon. “We’ve had numerous approaches from airlines from across the region,” he said on the eve of the show. “This facility will allow us to provide the highest-quality customer service and, most importantly, local operational support.”

One of the darkest horses in the handheld show ring is Panasonic Avionics, whose top-of-the-range eXpress offering has been out and about for a couple of years now without much in the way of corporate chest-thumping. Informed sources suggest that this is a reflection of Panasonic’s position as a mainstream embedded IFE manufacturer that is happy to provide eXpress for service recovery purposes but doesn’t want to see the product cannibalising its primary business.    
Those same sources suggest that Panasonic is no more immune to the swings and roundabouts of this lively market that the rawest of new entrants, saying that while eXpress shipment numbers have been more impressive than meets the eye, one client has recently decided to take its custom elsewhere. The substance behind that rumour, along with much else from the handheld charivari, can be expected to emerge in the halls of the Hamburg Messe this week.

More news, pictures and videos from Aircraft interiors EXPO Hamburg 2008....


Source: Flight Daily News