Rarely can the airline industry's love affair with a new technology have soured as quickly as in the case of interactive in-flight entertainment (IFE). Seized upon by marketeers, as the ultimate weapon in their armouries, its costs have proved greater and its benefits more elusive than perhaps anyone expected. Its pioneering exponents are licking the wounds inflicted by this two-edged weapon and some of their mightiest rivals have curtailed their plans in the field. The airframers diplomatically stop just short of saying: "We told you so".
Not for the first time, the third-party over-haulers, as ever coldly eyeing the bottom line, were the first to pull their fingers clear. Hunting Avionics' Chris Nicholls declares firmly: "Hunting has at this moment decided not to get involved in interactivity. We have made a decision that there were too many open-ended aspects to interactivity and that customers were generally shocked by the prices and were not warmly receiving information about what they might get in return - apart from competing with other people."
A year ago, FLS Aerospace at Stansted, UK, viewed IFE as a major opportunity and was aggressively chasing the work. Times have changed. Maintenance director Ron Corefield remarks: "My ideas have changed over the last 12 months. That was in the heady days of everybody having interactive video and the cash registers were ringing from here to Hong Kong. But now, until the benefit can be seen in revenue terms, most people seem to have backed off. In the face of that, we as maintainers and installers have done the same thing. The reason we wanted to be in it, was because operators didn't want two loads of downtime and wanted to do a C-check with it, but everybody is hanging back."
Corefield's initial enthusiasm was driven largely by the prospect of substantial work from United Airlines, which planned rapid deployment of interactive IFE on its wide-body fleet beginning about now. Those plans have gradually slipped into 1996 and there has been some coolness between the airline and its supplier GEC-Marconi InFlight Systems (GMIS) over the issue. United wants to see the Boeing 777, which features the GMIS kit as standard, safely into service before committing any further. With 777 entry into service just two months away, it is hoping to increase the number of video channels - particularly for information services - but its plans in interactivity are still uncertain. Corefield notes that United said that, "if the retrofit was going to affect half of a fifth of a per cent on the 777, then they didn't want it yet".
Corefield runs through the litany of unhappy IFE stories at airlines: Cathay Pacific's problems on the Airbus A330; Northwest Airlines' difficulties with Hughes Avicom equipment on the Boeing 747; and Virgin Atlantic's unhappiness with Hughes on the 747 and Airbus A340. "Interactivity really hasn't taken off," he notes, "and people are looking to start distributed [conventional, non-interactive, seat-back] video systems with the cash-slot all taped up."
At Marshall Aerospace, deputy chief designer of avionics and electronics Bob Fox says that the story with corporate aircraft owners is much the same. "The interest has been enormous, but the number of items that we have managed to turn from interest to contracts is somewhat less. Invariably, that is because the aspirations of the owner of a VIP aircraft are usually significantly greater than his budget," he says.
Virgin and Northwest both resorted to disarming the interactive functions on their IFE systems, apart from games, because of in-service problems. Virgin offers ten games, 14 video channels and 16 audio channels, but none of its much-publicised gambling or shopping. Head of avionics development Simon Mason is not happy, declaring: "These [vendors] promise the earth. We don't feel that we got the system we ordered. The system is not as mature as it was made out to be and we are pressuring [Hughes] to give us what we said.
"The whole industry is reeling at the moment through these systems. Obviously, from a marketing point of view, airlines are greedy for all the functionality that they can get their hands on. The vendors say they can deliver all that, but you end up somewhere halfway to it or maybe even worse," he says.
For an airline of Virgin's limited size, the engineering burden of a sophisticated IFE system can be tough to handle. Mason says: "We had the system put in by the [airframe] manufacturers. But it is still a big job dealing with the airframers. Hughes is contracted effectively to supply it to Boeing and Airbus and you keep a watching eye on them. So, there are a lot of different threads that you have to hold together here, which becomes a bit of an organisational headache and a lot of work - although Hughes provides all the labour to put it in. The [airframe] manufacturers have been fairly hands-off and just put in some standard wiring."
Even much-bigger Northwest with its heavyweight technical resources has found life a struggle. The head of its IFE engineering, Rodney Peters, explains: "The technical issues for us are mainly concerned with installation, because Hughes is the maintainer. We are not really required to be really proficient in the operation of the system internally, but we have a staff dedicated to the installation. For example, we had to come up with the wiring diagram for the 747 - I believe that we added 110 pages to the Boeing document."
In line with the conventional wisdom, Northwest elected to do its installations during C-checks. In practice, it completed one 747-400 "nose to tail," then none for six months and then nine in 18 months. Unhappy with the slow schedule, it dropped the interactivity for a movies-only system, elected to fit just first and business class for the time being and, since 1 October, 1994, has completed a further 33 aircraft on a dedicated IFE line. Peters comments, "It is very difficult to do these on-check because, although the aircraft is down, it has a lot of other needs and these IFE installations permeate the whole aircraft." He notes also that the multiplexed data links (MUX) in modern cabins are labour-intensive when IFE is installed, saying: "All these aircraft have MUX for lights, audio, cabin-crew calling and so on. You almost have to replace that system, because, if nothing else, the control unit is different to manipulate all the functions."
What Virgin and Northwest have emphasised is that, regardless of the commercial pressures to put IFE into aircraft, the installation programme requires painstaking preparation to handle the multiple issues involved. For example, although individual components will be airworthiness-qualified by manufacturers, the overall system for each airline and type will need a supplementary type certificate (STC). Chris Harvey of GMIS explains: "If you do the full fit, it is by far the biggest system on the aircraft. One or two customers are capable of doing the STC themselves and we supply a lot of information to support the STC or go to a maintenance company to jointly submit the STC - so it might even belong to us."
GMIS provides the IFE for the Boeing 777 and has retrofit deals with British Airways and United Airlines as well. Senior marketing manager Bill Peltola explains: "Commercially, the way we have tended to do it is to give the airline responsibility for the installation at the manufacturer, or at their facility, or on subcontract - and then support the certification effort. Other people are offering to do it, but - as with most things - as they get into it, they find it more complex than they thought. It is quite a complex system and it needs more than the average skills in the cabin side, so we get involved. We tend to run the installation of the software ourselves."
Once installed, the equipment faces the rigours of airline service - some of it in the less-than-tender hands of child passengers. Unsurprisingly, all concerned suspect that it will be the components, that are handled most, that will suffer worst. There are plenty, of other maintenance concerns, however. Northwest is remanufacturing its control tethers, which proved inadequate. "The one we had worked well - but not well enough", remarks Peters.
FLS' Corefield says: "Most of the time it is the equipment around the seats that breaks. Little boys sitting there playing Nintendo and so on and putting their fingers into pressure-sensitive switches are going to give you problems. There are hundreds of line replaceable units (LRUs). Screens are fairly robust but [supporting] arms go limp and those sort of things people don't like."
He continues: "Fibre-optic links need to be looked at. On some fibre-optic plugs there is a recommended number of connects and disconnects and you need to keep track of those. I don't think there is anything magical about it. You don't try and turn a fibre-optic bus-path through 90¡ - but it's not magical. One of the things that [IFE supplier] BE Aerospace says is that they are horrified at what has been done to some of the stuff that comes back to them."
British Airways chief avionics development engineer Clive Baxter also wonders about fibre-optics, commenting: "There is a bit of an unknown on fibre-optics and how well they will stand up to service. There is no question, they will work fine on day one, but with the stress of service who knows? The connections in particular have to be correct to within a few microns."
Northwest's Peters has other concerns too, saying: "There are issues with inter-connecting boxes. Most of those boxes are built in a physical distribution system, which goes from boxes to columns to sections and these are running in serial fashion. So, the interconnection for both radio frequency cabling and the local area network is a challenge.
"The timing of all the computers to get them all timed precisely and don't interfere is a difficulty. We have computers that lock up just like a personal computer. We have hundreds of central processing units here and, when they don't get the download for any different reason, then they lock up and the whole seat loses its functions."
With the benefit of experience, he adds that it is also "a big challenge" to get and keep all the flight attendants logged into the fleet-wide system so that their log-ins are always recognised. Finally, the large number of LRUs leaves vast scope for particular devices to prove troublesome - Northwest suffered from "marginal" voltage regulators which had to be replaced fleet-wide.
GMIS' Peltola is also anticipating most issues to be low-technology, saying: "The seat equipment is going to get the most wear and tear and the problems will be cable-breaks in handsets and maybe key-pads. There is always going to be a fair selection of wiring, of course. We have minimised the wiring as far as we can but there is quite a bit of it and that is an issue. There is fairly fast built-in test-equipment [BITE] where, with any failure in wiring or a box, we go into the central file server which can be interrogated at any time on landing."
BA's Baxter has long and vocally pressured vendors to improve the quality of BITE and he sees it as being of crucial importance in boosting the serviceability of IFE. He says: "We are looking for a system that has an extremely effective BITE that will tell our guys with a very high degree of certainty what unit has gone wrong. In our view, the promised 95% industry standard level of BITE efficiency is not enough. That means that, on one in 20 occasions it doesn't do its job. We want a quantum leap to give 99.5%. Our aim is a BITE system that is so credible that everyone believes it." (He believes that the technical nature of IFE makes it a prime opportunity for achieving that target.)
Different supplier-airline relationships are generating varying after-sale-service arrangements, particularly in airlines' outstations. Hughes Avicom, which retains ownership of its equipment, is heavily involved in servicing its clients' systems, but GMIS customer BA, for example, is working hard to train its own staff globally. The dire commercial consequences of unserviceable IFE, particularly at the out-stations, generates near-paranoia among the airlines, although Virgin's Mason remarks that some of its most capable engineers tend to be based abroad. "Our out-station engineers are some of our best experts in the airline," he says. "They see the same types of aircraft day in and day out. They get to know the best short cuts on the aircraft and they tend to have a better knowledge of the system than someone working on a shift system at Heathrow. We don't have Hughes backing us up at the outstations. Our staff can't fix all the nitty-gritty details but they will fix a fault that affects a [cabin] section or the whole aircraft."
Mason notes that not all engineers are instantly amenable to dealing with IFE and he accepts that different skill levels are sometimes required. He says: "Your average avionics engineer always thinks he has something more important to do in safety-critical things or in the cockpit. But it is a changing world. You train a guy to learn all about fly-by-wire and then you also need to fix what is effectively a cable television system on a local area network."
Northwest and BA suggest that their engineering staff are trained to treat IFE as being just as important as cockpit avionics, but FLS' Corefield backs Mason, declaring: "This is where the macho engineers have to do some of the housekeeping and get back into the cabin. IFE comes very close to being tied into aircraft systems and getting into satcoms - so this guy has to come in and not just talk to the captain, but also to the purser. The airlines that we do major maintenance for are spending more time examining the work in the cabins than the rest."
Northwest's Peters, points out the good news that, even with its failings, the current system still provides a more certain IFE service than the zone-video systems, which it replaces. A screen failure for example affects only one passenger - whom it may be possible to move - rather than several rows. BA's Baxter similarly comments: "What we are looking for is availability rather than reliability. Any complex system such as this is bound to go wrong - the important question is the effect of the fault. Provided that it is localised and affects only one channel or one area then that is better. That comes back to redundancy - which is difficult with IFE, because you obviously can't have two or three of everything - so then there is also the possibility of a performance trade-off." The issue is critical - the captains of BA and other airlines are authorised to delay departure at their discretion, rather than leave with seriously malfunctioning IFE.
For airlines with fewer resources than BA or Northwest, however, a major question is how to acquire quickly enough the IFE expertise, which they need to challenge their larger rivals in the marketplace. There is no simple answer, but one way forward is to lean on communications service-providers for help. Those entities have a vested interest in promoting interactive IFE, have themselves, learned from the airline pioneers and are more than willing to help. SITA Aircom's value-added-services manager, David Coyley, for instance, volunteers: "Our experience with the big carriers helps to bring the awareness of the pitfalls to the other people that we talk to. That brings the benefits of these lessons to smaller airlines that otherwise they will have to learn about by their mistakes. The anecdotal evidence that is floating around is what causes the smaller airlines to freeze. It stops them going ahead and trying to put the onus onto their contractors to help. Everyone is crawling along and the smaller airlines are tugging at our sleeves."
The service providers may be acting from self-interest, but, if there is any lesson from interactive IFE to date, it is that every fragment of wisdom available should be seized without hesitation.
Source: Flight International