News

Special report: iPads for in-flight entertainment?

28 Jul 2010 by BusinessTraveller

The runaway success of the iPad and the introduction of a slew of other e-readers have been noted by cash-strapped airlines. It’s a cliché to talk of new technology as being “disruptive”, but for airlines spending millions of pounds on updating their in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems, the increasing number of passengers bringing on board entertainment on their own devices presents both challenges and opportunities.

The challenge comes because the new systems being installed bring the ability for passengers to charge their devices, meaning that battery life is no longer a problem. A passenger could quite happily listen to their own music and watch downloaded content on their laptop, iPad or iTouch for several hours. If airlines are investing in the new systems and the content that they put on them, they want passengers to use them, and the devices may provide competition. 

The opportunity comes when the new system allows integration of the devices with the content being provided by the airlines. The new Panasonic Avionics Corporation’s eX2 IFEC System, for instance, which has been chosen by airlines as diverse as Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines for their new wide body A330-200 aircraft, as well as multi-language audio and video on demand (AVOD) services, including movies, television programmes, CDs, and soundtracks enables touch-screen smart monitors and multifunction handsets at every seat.

The touchscreen technology means that digital publications can be introduced – the in-flight magazine or the Duty Free catalogue could be digitised and as a result contain far more content, as well as of course enabling the carrier to free up the cabin from having hundreds of these magazines in the seat pockets.

Connectivity also plays its part in this. The Panasonics system is part of Panasonic Avionics’ Global Communications Suite broadband connectivity solution. Cathay Pacific recently announced a Memorandum of Understanding with Panasonic to bring full broadband connectivity on all Cathay Pacific and Dragonair passenger aircraft. While final terms are still being negotiated, the MOU allows the parties to “….immediately begin developing the plan to provide connectivity for passengers together with promotional, sponsorship and e-commerce opportunities for Cathay Pacific partner brands.” Services will launch from early 2012, subject to regulatory approval.

The intention for Cathay is to have a “connectivity solution” comprising of the eXConnect broadband service, eXPhone GSM phone service, and a CX-branded free-of-charge entertainment portal – accessible through all passenger devices and seatback screens. This will include a range of content updated during the flight, access to airline and partner sites, e-commerce, airline-specific advertising, and live television with a unique pay-per-view capability for special events.

The eXConnect provides two-way broadband connectivity supporting a wide range of passenger and crew applications, including internet access, voice, data, and the ability to monitor and transmit airline operational data to the aircraft, in real time and at speeds of up to 50 Mbps. The eXPhone, offered in collaboration with AeroMobile’s GSM mobile phone technology, allows passengers to use their mobile phones, smart phones and BlackBerry devices onboard to make voice calls, send SMS text messages or utilise data services and stream content wirelessly to their iPod, iPhone and iPad. 

In recent years, the issue of connectivity has focussed on the controversial issue of phones on planes. In fact, it allows a much greater connectivity, as Alex McGowan, head of product for Cathay Pacific, points out: “We believe that being connected is now an expected part of everyday life – not just for business purposes but also to stay in touch with family and friends. This system will allow passengers to be as ‘in touch’ as they wish to be while enjoying the great Cathay Pacific and Dragonair service.”

Neil James is executive director of corporate sales and product management at Panasonic Avionics. He says airlines using the Panasonic GCS system will be able to offer passengers full connectivity from their own device, whether it is a laptop, smartphone or iPad device.

“If you have the Panasonic GCS services you can have access from own personal device to a portal that’s provided by the airline onboard. The airline has full discretion whether they offer their own selection of websites or give the passenger complete access. It is completely at the airline’s discretion and on their specific strategy. You can do it whether in the form of cached websites where people look at cached websites and then these are updated on landing, or live websites for the whole of the flight. It depends how much the airline wants to channel the passenger through their own website experience.” 

There is also the little matter of whether any of this will be charged for, and if so, how much. If you are flying economy, do you get a basic choice of movies and then enter your credit card details to watch a premium film or a sporting event. And if that’s so, will you get a discount if you prebook these options at the same time as purchasing your ticket (long with, perhaps, a discount on any duty free ordered while you are on board). Australian low fares airline Jetstar is reportedly planning to rent out iPads to its customers in the meantime. According to the extremely well informed and irreverent Runway Girl over at FlightGlobal, (click here for the story), the system there is Bluebox Avionics.

For Panasonic, access to the internet is an immediate possibility with the new system.

Neil James: “We provide the tech to support the business plan of the airline. Some airlines may choose to grant access to certain websites that are sponsored and provided by our partners, news and information and certain white labelled websites available to the passenger without paying. If you want unbridled access to the web, click here and there’s a charge. That’s’ the model that most of the airlines seem to be going towards.”

James points out that the technology is such that it is the individual airline’s decision what to offer the passenger.

“Everything we offer is a customised solution. Our job is to provide the technology and the types of network and servers and hardware and software to meet the airline’s business goals. The underlying technology is the same, but the way they configure it and the choices they make is really dependent on the airline.”

The Panasonic system is also being installed by Virgin Atlantic on is new A330 aircraft. Virgin says that “In Premium Economy and Upper Class, passengers will be able to plug in a variety of their own mobile devices to play music, videos and pictures and documents on the seat back screen….”

The eXphone system allows passengers to “use Twitter or update their Facebook statues” says Virgin. “Passengers can swipe through programme covers or drag and drop saved items – similar to their day-to-day technology on the ground like iPhones and iPads.” Passengers in all classes will be able to plug a USB in to view their own content.

Most intriguingly, under the “Coming soon…” heading, Virgin says that it is working on plans to introduce “An e-reader to display digital magazines on the seatback with touchscreen technology to turn the pages”. This would tie in with the story that Virgin is planning a new “iPad” only magazine (Click here for the full story from The Guardian website.)

Virgin also says its “Enhanced connectivity features including access to the internet”, would include information from the Virgin Atlantic website.”

Neil James says that “The e-reader that Virgin is referring to is the ability to read epublications through the seatback, not necessarily through the iPad, so storing e-magazines or epublications on board the aircraft as though you were reading them on an iPad, but you will be reading them on the IFE system.”

Nevertheless he says that “…several airlines today are pushing towards being able to take content with you, whether audio, video, pdf files, readable e-publications…. it’s definitely coming down the pipe. 

“Our system will have compatibility with the systems. It’s normally about licensing – so whether we or the airlines would negotiate with the copyright owners of that content – it’s more about the rights than the technology.”

Tom Otley

Business Traveller will be publishing a  full interview with Rick Stuart, managing director, Bluebox Avionics Ltd about the iPad on IFE next week

For more on IFE, click here.

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