Emma Kelly/LONDON

The in-flight entertainment (IFE) industry is growing up. But it has had to. The IFE industry today is showing the first signs of realism and credibility - much improved characteristics than the over-promises and disappointments that have plagued the industry in recent years.

After years of considerable effort, interactive IFE can now be said to be working with at least some airlines.

Singapore Airlines says that its perseverance with interactive IFE is paying off. SIA offers one of the most sophisticated and extensive IFE products, dubbed KrisWorld, featuring 21 channels of video programming, 12 stereo audio channels, 10 Nintendo games, a moving map display, news and information and communication services. KrisWorld is based on the Matsushita System 2000E interactive IFE platform and BT's Airline Interactive Services (ALIS) software.

SIA had great problems two years ago in the early days of its interactive IFE programme, concedes Michael Tan, executive vice-president commercial. As a result of hard work by Matsushita and the airline, the situation today is much improved, he says. "We had tremendous problems in the beginning, with 60% reliability, followed by 80% reliability months later and 99%-plus reliability today. But this was not by sheer coincidence; Matsushita and our engineering people have worked extremely hard."

SIA is already working on the next IFE enhancements, having just introduced a 360mm (14in) personal video screen in first class. In-flight gambling and audio and video on demand (A/VOD) are both undergoing stringent tests on one aircraft before deployment across the long-haul fleet.

Malaysia Airlines (MAS) is also reporting success with its interactive programme, which is also based on the Matsushita/ALIS combination. MAS introduced its phase one product - 12 video channels, 18 audio channels, games, information services, satellite-delivered news, an on-board business centre and communication services - in April this year.

Phase two, officially launched last month, adds a 265mm (10.4in) touchscreen in first and business classes, an improved interface design and easier navigational style, additional information services and BT's Faxgram service. Next on MAS' wish list are a reliable A/VOD system with "surround sound", while satellite television and Internet browsing are longer-term desires.

In Europe, Virgin Atlantic Airways and Lauda Air have seen relatively smooth launches of their latest interactive systems. Now all eyes are on South African Airways, which recently took delivery of the first Boeing 747 featuring Sony Trans Com's P@ssport system. According to Sony, P@ssport is the most sophisticated interactive A/VOD system available for widebody aircraft. A/VOD is not provided on SAA's first P@ssport-equipped 747, but is expected to be available towards the end of this year.


Airlines are beginning to show more confidence in interactive systems. Matsushita has picked up recent System 2000E orders from Austrian Airlines, Emirates, Sabena and Swissair. Sony, meanwhile, has secured its second P@ssport customer in the form of Air Canada. And Rockwell Collins Passenger Systems can list American Airlines, British Airways and Delta Air Lines among its recent customers.

Other airlines remain wary, however. United Airlines, badly bruised by its experience with the failed GEC-Marconi InFlight Systems' equipment on its early Boeing 777s, remains unconvinced of interactivity. "The IFE industry with all of its interactive capabilities still has not progressed beyond the development stage. There are too many reliability, performance and functionality problems which need to be addressed," Lance Applegate, United's director of onboard product planning told an industry conference earlier this year.

The airline remains interested in interactive IFE, but has returned to basics and adopted a "show me" approach.

The Asian financial crisis, meanwhile, put on hold some programmes planned by airlines in the region. Qantas, for example, is deferring any moves into interactive IFE until the economic climate improves. As the IFE industry and its players become more mature and credible, the sector is becoming more attractive to outsiders and the long-expected shake-up among hardware suppliers has started.

Hughes-Avicom was purchased late last year by avionics giant Rockwell Collins, and is now Rockwell Collins Passenger Systems. Rockwell's purchase of the IFE hardware supplier followed a lengthy study of the industry, which it saw as a growth area. The company approached the four major hardware suppliers - B/EAerospace (BEA), Hughes-Avicom, Matsushita and Sony Trans Com - about a possible acquisition, but Hughes-Avicom proved the best fit.

Rockwell, better known for cockpit avionics, saw a move into IFE as a logical extension of its business. The company believed its experience in providing reliable avionics would allow it to offer reliable, economical IFE equipment.

Before the acquisition, Hughes-Avicom had done much to improve its image after early interactive IFE failures. The manufacturer was focused on improved system performance and reliability; had picked up orders for its Total Entertainment System (TES) from Air France, American Airlines, BA, LanChile and Thai Airways International and had pioneered in-flight live broadcast television.

A year later, Rockwell Collins Passenger Systems is a different company. "Testing and reliability standards are already being pressed upon us; avionics standards are being extended to IFE," says vice-president and general manage, Ken McNamara.

The acquisition would appear to have paid off, with considerable sales success for the TES. Rockwell won the widebody IFE order from BA when it dropped BEA, American's TES order continues to grow and Delta has picked the system for its long-haul fleet.

Rockwell's future vision is not just focused on IFE, but the "aircraft wireless expressway", featuring the TES, direct broadcast television and integrated information system transferring data from the passengers and crew to and from the aircraft via satellite.


Once Rockwell Collins entered the IFE business it did not take long for rival Honeywell to follow suit, selecting IFE hardware leader Matsushita as its partner in providing "total aircraft avionics". The companies announced last month that they have formed a strategic alliance to offer e-mail, Internet/intranet, direct broadcast service and other information services. This brings together Honeywell's cockpit avionics and communications technology, and worldwide customer support infrastructure, with Matsushita's System 2000E interactive system and advanced passenger applications.


The first products of the alliance will be seen by the middle of next year, when the partners aim to offer e-mail and Internet/intranet services - the latest applications that have captured airline IFE managers' imaginations.

Honeywell studied the IFE and telecommunications market for two years before making its move. "We realised that a lot of information is needed in flight by cabin crew and passengers. We weren't interested in being in IFE as such, but access to this information, and distributing the information is important, which resulted in the idea of an alliance," says Larry Bowe, managing director of Honeywell Aviation Services.

Honeywell talked to all of the IFE hardware manufacturers before setting on Matsushita, which was particularly attractive, says Bowe, because of its leading position in the IFE industry and complementary culture.

The future of BEA in the IFE industry, meanwhile, has been the subject of intense speculation over the last year. The manufacturer suffered a major blow when BA dropped it as the carrier's interactive IFE system supplier early this year. BA had selected BEA's multi-media digital distribution system (MDDS) for its long-haul fleet in 1995. The system's performance never matched the airline's reliability requirements, however, and the carrier was forced to rethink its interactive IFE plans after two years of perseverance with the MDDS.

BEA concedes that the BA contract loss was "a very sorry situation", but the manufacturer has moved on. "We are satisfied with where we are today; we are past [the BA contract loss]. We are working very hard to show that we are here, making huge investments in IFE," says Scott Smith, general manager of BEA's IFE group.


Since the loss of the BA contract, the manufacturer has been quiet on the IFE side, while the group has been busy expanding its aircraft interior business. BEA's silence should not be seen as a sign of withdrawal from the IFE industry, stresses Smith.

The company has been working hard with customers including Japan Airlines (JAL) and United to ensure its products are reliable and robust, he says. "We have had our heads down on the engineering and technical side. The industry is looking for people to deliver. We feel good about our position."

JAL has two Boeing 747s fitted with the MDDS, with a third aircraft, which will feature A/VOD, to be delivered next month. "The system reliability with JAL is hugely better than it was with BA. This is a process of continuous improvement," Smith says.

The non-interactive IFE programme with United is going well, he says, and BEA is confident of announcing a launch customer for its live television service by next February, with serious discussions under way with Alaska Airlines, American, US Airways and others.


BEA could well be the next IFE manufacturer to take a partner. Smith makes no secret of the fact that the manufacturer is in talks. "We are considering strategic partners in IFE. If the right partner came along and brought the right benefits we would welcome it," he says, adding: "Talks are under way with several prospective partners at fairly advanced stages. There could be a resolution by the end of this year or the end of the fiscal year.

"It would make sense to take a partner that brings capital and technology - these are very positive advantages." The Rockwell Collins purchase was good for Hughes-Avicom, says Smith, adding that BEA's airline customers would welcome a similar alliance. "Some of our customers have said that a tie up with an avionics manufacturer would be an interesting thing for us to do, it would make sense. But we are not limiting our discussions to cockpit avionics manufacturers, we are having discussions with others," he says.

As an industry matures there are always some casualties. Interactive Flight Technologies (IFT), which entered the market with great optimism and attracted considerable airline interest, finally conceded defeat and announced its departure for the dry cleaning business in July. The manufacturer started to reconsider its future in IFE a year ago, following a failure to secure additional airline customers other than Swissair, for its Boeing 747s and MD-11s. In May, the company conceded defeat and ceased all sales efforts.

Despite its short life in IFE, IFT can still lay claim to being the first manufacturer to introduce in-flight gambling and VOD, in addition to paving the way for the introduction of ever larger personal television screens.

The industry may not have seen the last of IFT, however. In late September, the company was the subject of a management buy out. The new owner, investment company Ocean Castle, has yet to make its intentions known, but has not written off IFE as a business yet.

Emma Kelly is editor of Reed Aerospace's biweekly newsletter In-Flight Entertainment International, which will feature full coverage of the WAEA show.

Source: Flight International