IFE with fewer components and more entertainment value hits the market
In the past year, the passenger experience segment of the airline industry has been using the term “seat-centric” more often to describe inflight entertainment (IFE) systems self-contained in each seatback on an aircraft. This design cuts down on weight and wiring, and airlines will find that the architectures of each system may offer vastly different options for connectivity.
Airvod, a small IFE company based in Dublin, has partnered with Montreal-based heavy maintenance and interiors specialist Avianor to reduce the lead times of installing new in-seat IFE systems on in-service aircraft. Together, the companies have created a one-stop shop for operators interested in the new system, providing everything from obtaining the type certificates and documentation to the physical installation. Many IFE providers refer to their connectivity offerings as “seat-centric,” but Airvod trademarked the name.
Airvod's Seatcentric IFE system evolved from the line of Crystal portable tablet devices that it has been offering to airlines, such as Jetstar, for the past five years. The systems are flying on more than 60 aircraft, including theBusiness Jet and . The tablets are stored in a trolley station and handed out to passengers during the flight. Because the devices are not connected to the aircraft, they do not need to be certified and are relatively inexpensive to use. However, the logistics of distributing the tablets to customers and powering them may be unwieldy for some travelers. To ease this concern, Airvod introduced the more permanent Seatcentric system in September 2011.
The idea driving the concept is to eliminate large tape players and zone boxes usually needed for traditional IFE systems and contain the entertainment in each device. This eliminates the problem of an entire row's screens going dark because of a problem with one component. Instead, each touchscreen is integrated with the seatback without additional wiring throughout the aircraft, except for a connection to the aircraft's electrical power source.
Because each tablet can store hundreds of movies and has Wi-Fi compatibility, an airline can stream content through a wireless system or store entertainment on each device.
Charter carrier Omni Air International is the launch customer and plans to send one-200 to Avianor in April and one in September for retrofits. Seatcentric is replacing the original IFE on Omni's 777s that were delivered 14 years ago. Avianor says it has also reached deals with two other airlines for the Seatcentric system.
Avianor will modify 380 Sicma seatbacks in each aircraft with the touchscreens and, by doing so, expects to reduce each aircraft's weight by up to 2,000 lb. Along with each screen, Avianor will install in-seat power throughout the cabin.
“The head end consisted of nine Hi-8 tape players that basically presented channels that passengers could watch, but they had no individual control over the playback,” says Earl Diamond, Avianor's chief operating officer. He says his company is certifying the system for use in the U.S. and in Europe, and plans to complete thetype certificate at the time of first delivery. Airvod has a preferred relationship with Avianor for maintenance and certification work, but airlines looking to install Seatcentric have the option of choosing their own maintenance shop.
Seatcentric gives airlines the option of choosing streaming content or storing hundreds of movies on each device. The technology uses a Toshiba 128-GB embedded multimedia card (eMMC) to store a large amount of information in a small space. The card's design achieves this by combining flash memory chips into a stack.
Moreover, Seatcentric is the first entertainment system flying with a 5.8-ghz connection, rather than the industry-standard range of 2.4 ghz. By increasing the frequency, Airvod ensures that users' Internet connections are not compromised.
“We don't take any bandwidth away from the consumer because of any network traffic that we're using or any transfers that we're doing,” says Airvod CEO Terence Bonar.
To obtain a Supplemental Type Certificate for the IFE system, Airvod had to integrate a public-address (PA) interrupt feature so passengers could hear announcements made by the flight crew.
“We have to interrupt the device when emergency announcements are being displayed, so we have a small 2-MCU [modular component unit] server that interfaces with the aircraft systems, and we pass those messages to our display through a wireless network.”
Similar to the way a smartphone works, new movies, television shows and newspapers are pushed to the device through the wireless network. This gives passengers the option of using the tablet device as a web browser.
The Seatcentric system can access the Internet via a wireless network that includes a server unit, a wireless access point and a “leaky line” feeder cable, which has small gaps in the copper shielding to let a radio signal through, therefore creating a limited wireless network environment.
Bonar says that lessors and airlines have shown interest in using Airvod as a retrofit, and the company is looking into qualifying the technology on new aircraft. Because the seats can be easily taken out of the aircraft with the IFE installed, the system could be advantageous for lessors wanting to change the seats on multiple aircraft, he adds.
“The other advantage of our architecture is that the leasing companies can choose to invest in a set of seats with the IFE and then they can cycle those seats through different aircraft depending on the lease period,” says Bonar.
Taking a different approach to the seat-centric concept is Thompson Aerospace, which has positioned its 1Net IFE system for generating revenue instead of just serving as a means of entertainment. By using a unique interface, Thompson has created a power over Ethernet IFE system aimed at short-haul carriers. The 1Net IFE is designed to use less wiring and hardware than legacy entertainment offerings, but its other main draw is that it can boost operators' revenues by giving passengers access to special coupons. Using the IFE system, travelers can buy special package deals and coupons for products and services in the cities to which they are flying; and banner ads on the device create advertising revenue for the operators.
Launch customer Bahrain Air installed the 1Net on one Airbusaircraft in partnership with Tenencia Aerospace Design. The system includes screens in 138 seatbacks and two cabin- crew panels for controlling the device.
For the Bahrain installation, Tenencia retrofitted the seats to fit the seatback monitors. In the future, Thompson plans to partner with Magna to provide an option for installing the IFE system in new seats. Thompson is marketing the seatback 1Net system primarily in Europe and the Middle East, but the company hopes to sign a few contracts in other regions with carriers that want to save weight on their IFE installations and gain ancillary revenues from advertising.
“We're hopeful we can get a couple of North American customers to sign up sometime this year,” says Present and CEO Mark Thompson.
The 1Net system is different from other types of IFE products in that one box offers many types of connectivity options in one package. The system comprises three main types of line replaceable units (LRUs). The first is a server packed with Ethernet, a cell-phone link for moving data to the system while parked at the gate, a PA audio-interrupt system and an Arinc 429 data-bus interface for moving maps. The second is an Ethernet-switch power unit; one unit is assigned to six seats. This power unit can be tucked away in the sidewall of the aircraft so that it is not under the seat. The third LRU is the actual seatbox itself, which includes a screen measuring 8.5 in., 12 in. or 17 in. depending on the airlines' preference. Thompson has also developed an in-seat power capability to complement the IFE system, which allows passengers to charge their personal electronic devices.
Thompson says that consolidating the equipment allows this system to use 66% less wiring and fewer parts than traditional systems with power boxes under each seat. 1Net costs roughly $3,000 per seat, and the company encourages airlines to use an online cost calculator to determine potential fuel and part savings against the cost of the parts.
A cell-phone link allows the server to obtain 150 pages of information about a certain destination in a half hour while an aircraft is positioned at a runway gate between flights. These pages of content include maps and coupons for different services in the area.
Each connectivity box holds up to 2,000 GB of data, which can be used to store movies or even health-monitoring data for the aircraft. Airlines choose the entertainment content and Thompson encrypts it on a flash drive.
When the passengers are in the air, they can browse the website and sign up for coupons by entering their e-mail address or taking a photo of a QR code with their phone or tablet, and they can purchase inflight amenities and duty- free items with their credit cards.
Airlines can use set up a 1Net interface to control cabin functions and measure the usage statistics and ancillary revenues that the IFE system is cultivating with each flight. Thompson estimates that the banner ads could yield an internal rate of return of 60% for an airline that is comparable to Bahrain, which could equate to $300,000 per year. Airlines with larger load factors flying shorter routes will likely be able to gain the most from the system, as regional trips have higher turnover and more eyes on the screen.