Emma Kelly/LONDON

The in-flight entertainment (IFE) industry has come in for sharp criticism over the last few years, with some well-publicised interactive IFE failures giving it a bad name. To limit the chances of this happening in the future, the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) - the IFE industry body - has a renewed focus on new technology and its impact on IFE.

The WAEA restructured its Technical Committee (WAEA-TC) last year to assist the move of new technology into the IFE industry. The WAEA-TC is now more forward-looking, with the aim of "-guiding new equipment and technology into IFE and making sure it is a smooth transition", says Rich Salter, IFE consultant and WAEA director.

The technical function of the WAEA before the restructuring did not extend to future technologies. When it was established in the 1980s, the WAEA-TC was responsible for addressing issues and challenges related to current IFE technology. But this was not enough.

"What we really need to do is to educate the airlines and the vendors on the future technology that is coming down the pipe. The idea is to look at technology that is outside of IFE, in the consumer industry for example," says Salter. The committee's remit today is to identify the emerging technologies in outside areas such as consumer electronics, computers, communications and satellite systems, which are likely to affect IFE in the future.

"Part of this [mission] means writing and adopting specifications or guidance papers that will help reduce the problems that have been encountered in the recent past with new product introductions," says Salter. He adds: "Take digital versatile disk [DVD], for example. If that new technology is sold to airlines by multiple suppliers before an industry standard is adopted, we could see two or more competing formats for DVD content, not unlike the old VHS versus Beta [video] tape format war. That could result in big additional costs for the airlines and suppliers alike."

Standardisation would do much to ease the move of DVD into IFE. "With a standard in place, the studios could release the movies in a single format for IFE DVD, the editing and duplicating labs could set up with one type of equipment to process it, and the airlines could specify a single format for their media. The result is that all parties involved will save costs and the market for the new technology would grow larger, with a single standard, so that everyone will make more money in the long run. That's very important for the long-term health of the IFE business," Salter says.

The WAEA-TC has identified more than 20 new areas that could affect the IFE industry in the future. These include wireless technologies, integrated modular avionics, fibre-optics, data loading, content encryption, communications, internet, compression methods and standard connecting platforms. The committee's immediate focus of attention has been on DVD, smart cards, direct broadcast satellite systems, internet, displays and transaction/gaming.

The DVD working group has started to write a specification. The IFE industry has a major interest in DVD as it offers increased reliability and storage capacity, with less space and weight, than comparable technologies. The group is looking at DVD as a possible medium for video, audio and data services.


The group is considering various factors in its specification, which is due to be completed next year. For example, it will not be possible to use consumer digital video disks to screen films on aircraft, as each DVD contains a code which prohibits its use outside the region in which it was purchased. Instead, an airline-specific code needs to be defined. In addition, encryption of the content will be required for airline usage of first-run movies.

The smart card working group, meanwhile, is progressing towards the specification-writing stage. It will propose standards for smart card installation and usage on aircraft. Smart cards have applications in flight, including telephony, shopping, on-board services such as gaming and pay-per-view films, and customer tracking for airline marketing and administration purposes. The group is to meet other industry associations this autumn to validate its proposals.

With growing airline interest in satellite television, the relevant working group's activities will become increasingly important. The group is focusing on programme content licensing and standards for onboard satellite television installation. Content licensing is particularly complex because of the copyright issues which are associated with the use of live television programming in flight.

Once its current round of specification activities are completed, the committee will not stop there. "The TC will continuously survey the WAEA membership for the technologies, processes and services that they are interested in having us investigate. We expect a continuous flow of new technologies crossing over into IFE and the focus will change often, depending on the consumer electronics advances and the airlines' and IFE suppliers' interest focus," Salter adds. In the next year, the focus is likely to move to the internet and transaction/gaming.

Overall, the WAEA-TC's aim is to make the IFE industry healthier. "Our long-term objective is to enhance the growth of the IFE industry by keeping the new technology flowing into our application niche with minimal problems. This will make the market larger and save all parties a lot of money in the process. We want to avoid the problems of products having less-than-desirable reliability due to new technology being installed in the airline environment without proper specifications being adhered to. There are unique environments and characteristics of an aircraft's operation that the TC is uniquely qualified to bring to the attention of the new product suppliers," says Salter.

Source: Flight International