The attributes that make the interior of the Boeing 787 twinjet so distinctive - a sweeping entryway, super-sized luggage bins, extra-large dimmable windows and a unique lighting scheme with various 'mood' settings - have justifiably captured the imagination of travellers and aviation buffs. However, it is not without irony that the 787s currently rolling off the production line are less advanced in terms of cabin connectivity than many McDonnell Douglas MD-80s flying in US skies, feature older generation IFE systems, and lack the latest innovations in integrated IFE/slimline seats.
Some of the disparity can be blamed on delays to the 787 programme. Peter Gundermann, president and chief executive officer of in-seat power specialist Astronics, put the impact of the 787 delay on cabin system suppliers into perspective in late 2010.
"We've already shipped 30 shipsets or so of product to our customers for the 787. We did that last year, even the year before. So we're a little bit ahead of the curve," he said.
Gundermann said what that means for Astronics "is that when Boeing starts ramping up 787 and all of the suppliers around the world start talking about the 787 impact on their financials, we're going to be strangely silent. That doesn't mean we're off the programme, it just means that we've got to wait for that inventory that we've already shipped to get through the process."
Many IFE systems have sat on shelves for years waiting to be installed on the 787. Since the lifecycle of IFE in terms of equipment and ideas is 18 months, a three-year wait equates to nearly two turns, making the difference between kit ordered in 2006-2007 for delivery in 2008 appear quite stark when compared with the lighter, slimmer platforms with capacitive touchscreens available today.
For example, All Nippon Airways recently unveiled the interiors of the 787s that will operate on its regional and domestic routes. While the seatback IFE in economy class would have been considered state-of-the-art when the carrier placed its order, it now appears dated on ANA's new 787s.
Economy-class seats have also reduced in size during the past five years, with today's models vastly slimmer - and subsequently more fuel efficient. Boeing, however, is reticent to make significant changes to 787 cabin technology and interiors for fear of further delaying deliveries, multiple sources say.
Asked to say when it will install new connected IFE and communications (IFEC) systems on the 787, Boeing said it could not comment because "our experts are focused on first delivery right now. Additionally, we don't have any updates to share on this topic at this time."
United-Continental is understood to be among carriers pushing Boeing to fit new IFE - specifically Panasonic Avionics' 9in smart monitor known as the Eco 9i - to B/E Aerospace-manufactured economy-class seats on its 787s. However initial deliveries, expected in early 2012, will not feature the product.
"It's a no. Our first 787 won't have the smart monitors," United-Continental confirms. A separate source with knowledge of the discussions between Boeing and United-Continental asserts that while "the first aircraft won't have Eco, the seatback integration will look much better" than that being offered on ANA's initial 787s. Tom Plant, B/E Aerospace vice-president and general manager seating products, says the seat-maker's ability to change plans to accommodate the IFE system for United-Continental "has been pretty crisp and we've been pretty fast in reacting to that". He adds: "We make deliveries on one of the new IFE systems in the beginning of next year on the 787. I can't tell you what customer it is with."
Boeing is also yet to offer IFE as a linefit option for the 787. The airframer was badly burned by its own failed foray into airborne internet - Connexion by Boeing (CBB) - which was closed at the end of 2006. It had previously intended to offer CBB, a Ku-band satellite-supported solution, on the 787.
A source said that when CBB announced it was going out of business, one of the first things the 787 team did - knowing it had a weight problem already - was to take out all of the provisions [for connectivity].
"Architecturally it's still there but the actual physical provisions on the airplane - which entails strengthening the area where the [Ku] antenna radome was going to go on the aircraft - was about 30lb [13.6kg], so they pulled it off. There was a rack as well, and that's bigger than that," the source adds. However, Boeing is showing interest in participating in post-delivery modifications of connectivity to the 787. Thales, which has been contracted to provide an Inmarsat SwiftBroadband-supported IFEC system for Qatar's 787s, originally hoped connectivity would be linefit to the twinjets.
In a recent Flight International interview, Thales IFE chief Alan Pellegrini revealed the latest plan is for Boeing to provide some provisioning on a linefit basis, then Thales will work with Boeing's Commercial Aviation Services division for post-delivery mods as soon as the aircraft delivers.
"The post-delivery mod includes installation of a second satellite communication radio and antenna, [and] the installation of our onboard wi-fi and mobile telephone system to support cell phone access," says Pellegrini.
"From a linefit perspective, the fact that we'll be doing this with a post-delivery mod means that all the engineering work will have been done, so even if an airline cannot get the system linefit from Boeing, we'll already have an engineering package and arrangement for post-delivery. It's less than ideal from an airline perspective but better than the alternative of not having an option, so this will be good precedent-setting and groundbreaking in getting the system installed on the aircraft."
The first retrofits are expected in early 2012 after first deliveries to Qatar. Thales' next generation Android-based IFEC system, of which Qatar is a customer for the 787, is expected to make its debut in 2013 but the system, known as AVANT, is not yet offerable on the 787.
"I suspect Boeing will want to be more assertive or aggressive with new IFEC technology once they get their feet on the ground with deliveries of the 787, recognising that the product will be going into new aircraft but also via retrofit and on other Airbus platforms, including the A380 in 2012, so I think there will be market pressure to get the latest generation systems on Boeing aircraft," says Pellegrini.
That pressure could mount if Airbus succeeds in delivering the new A350 as planned in 2013. "When we specified the A350 cabin with the milestones we have on the programme, ie starting two to three years later than our competitor, in working with suppliers we specifically set out to capture technology of the latest standard," says Airbus vice-president marketing, Bob Lange.
"That window has given us some opportunities which we tried to capture. For us, we had an opportunity to take advantage of the rapid pace of technology in IFE and connectivity in particular, seats to a slightly lesser extent, so yes [connectivity] is part of our standard A350 offer," he adds.
Once 787 deliveries start flowing smoothly, however, interiors and IFE in the cabin are expected to catch up, Panasonic Avionics chief executive Paul Margis says.
"I think right now it is a bit stalled because they [Boeing] are so focused on making sure the airplane itself is flying [in revenue service]. The connectivity is a tough one because of the antennas and all of that, but the interior will be the fasted thing moving because it's not that hard and airlines are pushing to be competitive," he adds.