IFE systems get leaner and meaner

In-flight entertainment system manufacturers have been on a constant quest to reduce the weight of their systems. Now a new level of collaboration with seat manufacturers is yielding results

1st Sep 2010

In-flight entertainment and communication (IFEC) systems have been getting lighter over the past two decades even as they offer ever-greater functionality, as airlines strive to lure more passengers while driving down equipment weight and cost.

In an effort to meet airline demands, seat manufacturers and IFEC system suppliers are now working closer together than ever before. To strengthen this ever-cosier relationship, the IFEC industry association, the Airline Passenger Experience Group (APEX) – formerly the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) – recently got the two sides together at a Single Focus Workshop to further explore the integration of seats and IFEC.

The association changed its name earlier this year in recognition of new developments in the industry, including the closer ties between IFEC and seat manufacturers, and a need to better represent the needs of a wider sector. The workshop itself covered issues such as collaborative design of IFEC and seats, next-generation seating and IFEC and seat-IFEC interfaces.

“The integration design of seating and IFE has improved considerably over the years and recently there has been a tentative push to enhance working partnerships,” said Patrick Brannelly, president of APEX and vice-president of corporate communications for products at Emirates Airline. The association “believes that facilitating a workshop with this kind of interaction, in a public forum, could potentially generate a turning point in seat/IFE integration,” he added.

Greater integration

The airframe manufacturers have long called for greater integration of seats and IFEC in order to ease some of the problems they have faced when delivering new aircraft.

“We have already reached a certain level of integration, but co-existence of both systems was, and is still, not without conflict,” Airbus’s Thomas Schwarz told the workshop attendees. Despite 20 years of developments, the optimal installation is still yet to be achieved and there is “still room for improvement”, he said.

Airbus used the forum to invite the industry to work with the manufacturer on a series of new seat/IFEC prototypes for a demonstrator to be available in 2012. The concepts include: an ultra-light seat featuring no IFEC; an “efficient seat and i.FE module” – i.FE being ‘innovative IFE’ – comprising a wired and robust entertainment solution in a light seat; and a “flex-seat and i.FE module” featuring a wireless and flexible i.FE system in a light seat.

“We need your support to realise [this vision]”, said Airbus’s Gerd Dueser. It is a “win-win” offer, he said, with Airbus providing systems-integration competence and a marketing platform, while industry provides technology.

Airbus says it is encouraged by a number of developments already occurring in the market.

“Actually, we see interesting and promising activities in the market between seat and IFE suppliers, regarding highly integrated systems. Seat and IFE suppliers are commencing integration before customer selection,” said Schwarz. The executive was referring to the integrated seat-IFEC projects under way at leading system manufacturers Panasonic Avionics and Thales.

A prototype of Panasonic’s Integrated Smart Monitor (ISM), developed in conjunction with Teague, was originally revealed at the 2009 WAEA show and exhibition. The system, which was then dubbed Fusion, represents the latest in IFEC-seat innovation and integration, according to Panasonic. It is a substantial advance in IFEC design, as the in-seat video display and passenger seat are built with each other in mind, the manufacturer said.

The result, according to Panasonic, is a seamless seat design that benefits from reduced thickness and weight, with improved comfort and reliability, lower cost and power consumption compared to conventional IFEC solutions. On-screen navigation, flight attendant call, reading-light control, audio jack and USB port are all incorporated into the monitor, eliminating the complexity of in-seat harnesses and additional seat components, says the manufacturer.

Integrated product

“The vision was to create an integrated product that would decrease costs, reduce complexity and create a premium entertainment experience for travellers,” Panasonic said. The result was an IFEC seat that seamlessly integrates Panasonic’s next-generation, touch screen IFEC monitor with an ultra-thin, lightweight economy seat.

The prototype on display at last year’s WAEA show – and the project that is at its most advanced – is a system under development with seat manufacturer Weber Aircraft, using its lightweight slim economy 5751 seat. However, the IFEC manufacturer is also at various stages of development in partnership with seat manufacturers B/E Aerospace and Recaro.

“Panasonic continues to work with all seat vendors, including Weber on integrated solutions,” said Marshal Perlman, Panasonic’s director of product management. “We expect to the first integrated seat solutions to be flying in mid-2011,” he added.

According to Panasonic, the product is significantly lighter than other solutions, offers improved reliability and a home-theatre entertainment experience, at the same time as streamlining the aircraft manufacturing process with fewer parts.

“The 9-inch ISM is less than half the weight and [has] half the power [requirement] of existing solutions,” said Perlman. It features an 85-degree panel viewing angle and a capacitive touch screen that delivers clear, crisp image quality that is superior to monitors with resistive touch screen technology, he added.

Furthermore, unlike traditional monitors that require external peripherals, the ISM incorporates the on-screen reading light and flight attendant call controls, as well as an integrated credit card reader, audio jacks, USB ports and Panasonic’s eXport solution for iPod.

“By integrating these peripherals into the monitor, Panasonic is able to reduce the number of seat line-replaceable units by 75 percent, which means a light, more efficient seat that is easier to build and maintain. It significantly reduces the amount of equipment to dispose of at the end of the life cycle,” Perlman said.

Airline orders

A number of carriers are believed to have ordered the ISM – with US carrier Delta Air Lines widely reported as one. The carrier is understood to be planning to install the monitors on its Boeing 747-400s and possibly other aircraft, as part of a US$1 billion in-flight product upgrade. Panasonic declines to name its customers, but Perlman says it has customers for both narrowbody and widebody aircraft.

“The airline and industry response has been universally positive, because this product is beneficial to airlines, passengers and even those companies that build aircraft, as it helps increase the entertainment experience and also helps reduce the overall weight and complexity of the aircraft,” Perlman said.

The ISM has already received a number of awards, including a Crystal Cabin Award at this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany, and an International Design Excellence Award. The 9-inch ISM – the first product in what Panasonic is dubbing its new Eco line – will be on display at the APEX show in September. The manufacturer will also showcase additional products, including an 11-inch ISM.

Rival hardware manufacturer Thales is similarly working on integrated IFEC-seat projects. The company displayed a B/E Aerospace economy seat featuring an integrated Thales IFEC system at the Aircraft Interiors show and is hoping to have a similar product with Recaro ready in September, in time for the APEX annual show. Thales said it is working with most seat manufacturers.

“More will follow. Our goal is seat-centric IFE where more and more of the IFE system is part of the seat,” the company said. Weight-savings compared with traditional IFEC systems are very significant, due to the reduced number of line-replaceable units and fewer cables, Thales said.

“Our technical teams are now doing the calculations, but the [weight-saving] target is around 30 percent,” the company said. At the same time, functionality will increase.

“Our new smart video display units for these seat-integration projects have higher processing capability, more local storage and integrated ports for passenger [audio, video or data] devices. Beyond this, Thales is introducing a new Touch Passenger Media Unit that enables passengers to multitask,” the manufacturer added.

Certification target

Thales is targeting 2013 for systems to be certificated and flying and has claimed a lot of interest from airlines.

“We are giving demonstrations constantly. Airlines see the benefit of reduced cables/weight and our modular design promotes ease of service and upgrades. Seat Centric IFE is really a step forward and Thales has dedicated teams to do it right,” the company added.

Meanwhile, another IFEC system that has weight saving at its core is close to entering service. Lumexis’ Fibre-to-the-Screen (FTTS) IFE system – also a Crystal Cabin Award winner this year – will be launched by Dubai-based low-cost carrier flydubai on its fleet of 44 single-aisle Boeing 737-800s from the end of this year.

The FTTS system uses fibre-optics rather than traditional copper cables, halving its cost and weight compared with conventional systems – at an installed weight of 2kg per seat. “Any reduction in weight reduces our fuel costs and therefore ensures we can keep our ticket prices low,” said flydubai Chief Executive Officer Ghaith Al Ghaith.

On flydubai, the FTTS will be installed in Recaro’s Basic Line 3510 seat. Recaro is supplying a “facelift version” of the seat with a new, composite backrest.

“For the first time, we have managed to integrate an IFE system with such a big monitor in the backrest of the seat without sacrificing living space for the passenger – this was our biggest challenge,” said Axel Kahsnitz, chief executive officer of Recaro Aircraft Seating.

Recaro engineers have also created more legroom by removing the literature pocket from the shin area and placing it above the tray table.

iPad, Sony PlayStation take flight

The world of IFE has always mirrored developments in communications and entertainment on the ground. Telephony, fax, mobile communications, 3D games and audio and video on-demand services took to the skies as soon as passengers were used to them on terra firma.

The latest gadget to beguile consumers, the Apple iPad, has already ventured skywards, with some commentators declaring it is the next big thing in IFE, set to replace traditional seatback systems, while others recognise the device’s limitations in the demanding in-flight world and see it as just part of the hype that accompanies every Apple launch.

Australian low-cost carrier Jetstar has been the first airline to test the iPad in flight and was among the first to talk about its potential for in-flight use. As soon as the iPad was launched, Jetstar’s Chief Information Officer Stephen Tame was predicting that it could put an end to airlines providing traditional IFE.

The Jetstar trial was coming to an end as Asian Aviation went to press. The tests went very well, according to the airline, which has already decided to roll out iPads across its network. The iPad is a “hot technology” which its passengers want, Jetstar said.

Up to now, the carrier has been using Airvod Mach 5 portable entertainment devices, but it is now in discussions over a fleet-wide roll-out for iPad capability, with the details yet to be determined. A number of issues have yet to be resolved, including battery recharging and security.

During the trial, Jetstar rented iPads to passengers on certain domestic services for A$10 (US$8.85) at a time. The units feature movies, television programmes, music videos, games, eBooks and music.

The Jetstar trial uses Bluebox Avionics’ Bluebox Ai solution, with IFE content provider Stellar Inflight also part of the team. London-based Bluebox announced in April that it was adding the iPad to its in-flight product portfolio, which also includes portable IFE devices such as the Bluebox Lite.
Bluebox Ai “leverages the power, flexibility and quality of the most advanced consumer device ever produced”, the company said. The Bluebox Ai features a full range of games from the iTunes App Store, a full selection of consumer magazines, at least 10 hours of battery life, eBooks from the App Store and custom applications for individual airlines, says Bluebox.

“This device [the iPad] sits very neatly within our current range of portables that carry the Bluebox software system,” Bluebox Avionics joint managing director Rick Stuart said at the time of the launch. “The iPad allows access to a huge range of applications that are already available for this device, plus it gives the airline an opportunity to design their own,” he adds.

Baltic charter carrier Small Planet Airlines announced in late July that it will offer passengers iPads on its Boeing 737s from the end of this year, as part of its rebranding from flyLAL. Chief executive officer Vytautas Kaikaris said the iPads will feature “a wide choice of games, movies and other entertainment”.

Jetstar and Small Planet Airlines are likely to be just the first carriers to test the iPad in flight – a move that could well have important ramifications for IFEC system suppliers and their future product development. In the late 1990s, for example, Virgin Atlantic and American Airlines used consumer DVD devices in their premium cabins, which subsequently resulted in development of a whole raft of in-fight portable DVD products.

Whether the in-flight use of iPads lives up to the hype remains to be seen. While the device has the appeal of being an Apple product – along with the applications and ease-of-use that implies – it also has many limitations when it comes to in-flight use.

The battery life of a maximum of 10 hours will mean it is not suitable for many flights, and there remain associated issues with recharging the devices for a return journey. Durability for in-flight use is a particular concern, and questions remain about whether the iPad will be able to cope with the rigours of in-flight use.

With this writer herself having recently witnessed Emirates’ touch-screen IFEC being put through its paces by her two young children on flights between Australia and the United Kingdom, it seems doubtful whether the iPad would survive such treatment unscathed.

The device also appears rather cumbersome for in-flight use, having to be held or placed on a stand, while it also raises issues of security, storage and cabin crew workload. Industry observers have suggested that the iPad may simply be in vogue for a while among some carriers, but cost and durability could curtail its long-term IFE future.

Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP) has now also found its way aboard aircraft, after UK IFE provider IFE Services signed a deal in May with Sony Computer Entertainment America to distribute the PSP to airlines. Through the collaboration, IFE Services can provide airlines with “one of the world’s best-selling and most popular handheld entertainment systems to their IFE. With onboard access to a PSP system and its broad gaming and entertainment offering, passengers can watch movies and television programmes and play the latest PSP games,” IFE Services said.

The system is fully certificated for use in flight and features extended battery life – up from 5.5 to 11 hours – while playing games. The system can be comfortably held or placed on a seatback tray, while the PSP unit can also be custom-branded by airlines

“We know that many airline passengers are interested in playing full-scale games with impressive graphics, which the PSP delivers,” said Mark Hogg, chief executive officer of IFE Services. “Our view is that this has been long awaited by the airline industry and the passengers they fly.”

Asian Aviation at a glance