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4K Screens: Coming to an Airplane Seatback Near You

Stunning picture quality, clarity and image depth – those are a few of the factors that have driven 4K TV to be the dominant home theater viewing experience, especially on large screens. 4K delivers four times the resolution of an 1080p (HD) TV and that vibrancy translates to consumers feeling a part of the action rather than a passive viewer of a screen. Industry estimates predict that half of all U.S. homes are expected to own at least one 4K TV by the end of this year.

Is it any surprise that the world’s leading airlines are looking to 4K as a way to deliver a better experience for their passengers?

While 4K, or Ultra HD technology, isn’t new —with several providers demonstrating 4K technology as early as 2015 — it’s only just now making its way into commercial airline cabins, according to recent reports from inflight entertainment technology suppliers.

“4K is the way the market is going – at the leading edge of the premium experience,” notes Gary Kaplan, product marketing manager for Panasonic Avionics’ in-flight entertainment system.

Early 4K Adopters Announce Rollouts

Kaplan says the airlines driving the 4K push are the luxury carriers around the world in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

In July, Japan’s largest airline, All Nippon Airways (ANA), became the first commercial airline to announce it would offer 4K in its premium cabins, including a whopping 43-inch display in first class from Panasonic Avionics. The airline is rolling out its new Ultra HD experience on 12 re-designed Boeing 777-300ER aircraft used for international flights came into service this past August.

“We’re seeing demand for 4K screens everywhere. We have close to 10 airlines, and are on schedule to have our first full aircraft with our ULTRA 4K monitors flying around mid-2020,” adds Harry Gray, vice president, strategic sales, for Safran Passenger Innovations.

The X-series displays made by Panasonic Avionics pictured here are 1080P, but could be ideal for 4K resolution in the future.Panasonic Avionics

Leading the 4K charge are top-tier airlines known as innovators as well as in what Gray calls “fast followers” seeking to leapfrog ahead of competitors.

At this year’s Airline Passenger Experience Expo (APEX), Safran announced new contracts with both Lufthansa Airlines and ANA for its RAVE ULTRA In-flight Entertainment and Connectivity (IFEC) program.

ANA will deploy Safran’s 13.3-inch 4K displays to its economy class passengers while first class passengers will use the larger 15.6-inch displays. Lufthansa Airlines is also investing in Safran’s RAVE ULTRA displays which will be line fit to 34 Boeing 777-9s. The displays feature edge-to-edge viewing and a slim design – about the thickness of a cell phone and, according to the company, provides weight savings per aircraft of about 30 percent compared to previous versions of RAVE as well as other IFE suppliers.

Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways became the first commercial airline to introduce 4K resolution screens in its aircraft cabins in July 2019. ANA

“This is a major factor to consider for airlines that are operating long haul routes where weight and fuel costs have a large impact on their profitability,” Gray said.

Gray says unlike many IFE systems, which are server based, Safran’s is “seat based,” which means the company doesn’t need to rely on aircraft network backbone upgrades to provide the 4K entertainment demand of all passengers.

“All of our content is in the seat – it’s like having an iPad in every seat and we network that and update the content once a month during flight so there is no impact to our existing architecture or to the operations of the airline or our passengers,” Gray said. “Our existing customer base can upgrade their existing displays to ULTRA 4K without the requirement for an aircraft backbone replacement, thus saving additional time and cost for a retrofit.”

An additional feature with RAVE is the ability to give passengers access to bluetooth technology. Research suggests that bluetooth headsets now outsell wired headsets, so passengers will logically expect to be able to use them on the aircraft.

Advances in Technology, Lower Costs Help Open 4K Market for Airlines

Several industry experts say the 4K uptick has been most visible in the business jet and military aircraft markets – often the first place that IFEC innovations originate.

Douglas Campbell, director, OEM and Commercial Sales for Alpharetta, Ga.-based FDS Avionics, says his company is seeing the biggest demand for 4K in the special mission/military aircraft segment as well as the VIP business jet market.

FDS Avionics’ Edge Series of 4K monitors provide a four-way split screen where each quadrant is in the native full HD/1080P resolution of the input device. Campbell says large cabin business and private jets such as Bombardier and Gulfstream as well Boeing BBJ and Airbus ACJ model aircraft have retrofitted 4K monitors.

FDS Avionics makes the Edge series 4K displays, pictured here. FDS Avionics

To explain what has made 4K more attractive now, IFE companies like Panasonic point to infrastructure advancements. According to Kaplan, Panasonic Avionics’ high-speed, fiber-based backbone can support 4K services, including memory to store high-definition movies.

FDS Avionics’ Campbell says costs have come down for some parts and airlines have finally caught up with their capital expenditures for high-definition systems, which caused a lag in adopting Ultra HD.

Brad Cooper, engineering manager for large inflight video display builder Aircraft Cabin Systems, now owned by French aero structures company Latécoère, agrees.

“Everything is going to go to 4K, just as we saw with HD. As the market becomes saturated with new panels and new displays, the cost goes down,” Cooper observed.

ACS has been shipping their large, customized 4K screens to the business jet market for the last two years. Their customers include all the major aircraft manufacturers, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and Boeing, as well as large IFE suppliers.

A major innovation, says Cooper, is taking a more flexible design approach – starting with a base system and customizing it with modules that the company can change out depending on the IFE system.

“We tailored our approach around what we saw with the HD market where there were very rigid design requirements and we would design a monitor for one system but it wouldn’t work if the customer wanted to put in a different monitor,” Cooper said.

IFE Providers Proactively Address Issues of Limited 4K Content, Display Obsolescence

Another critical potential hurdle to widespread 4K adoption is the availability of 4K media.

To remedy that situation, Panasonic Avionics provides its customers with a “a very unique, high- performing upscaling capability,” Kaplan said, which takes current lower resolution media and upscales it to 4K resolution. According to Kaplan, it’s very difficult for airlines or passengers to tell the difference between what has been upscaled and what is native 4K content.

Another challenge facing the industry is the very real shortage of screens caused by panel manufacturers who, focused on serving the larger consumer home entertainment market, don’t want to keep designing the smaller displays needed in aviation.

A 4K monitor designed for IFE seat-back displays, supplied by ACSACS

The airline sector will always be a secondary market, notes Kaplan, so to combat that issue, Panasonic’s Technical Services team devotes considerable resources to addressing obsolescence issues with spares and repairs and helping manage the inventory needed to support the current generation of displays.

“We make sure the seat (displays) continue to work even after we have moved on to two or three systems past the introduction date of whatever is flying on that plane,” Kaplan said.