Commercial airlines are testing the use of virtual reality and establishing wireless network-centric in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) strategies that allow them to expand and evolve applications being deployed across seatback screens, mobile devices and even head-worn displays.
Pacome Revillon, CEO of Euroconsult, provided a preview of how the firm’s commercial aviation analysts see the market shaping up regionally, prior to the release of their 2019 IFEC industry report.
“Europe should see connectivity become mainstream, with all major airlines to deploy connectivity in the next three years,” Revillon said. “Asia remains the region with the largest growth potential over time, in view of the overall passenger traffic. In the short term, [geosynchronous high throughput satellite] Ku-band and Ka-band regionally should lead the market. Air-to-ground in Europe is now commercially open, and should capture part of the demand, with IAG as initial anchor client. Then NGSO constellations should capture an increasing share of the market, pending the availability of well adapted antenna systems.”
Singapore Airlines’ IFEC Future is VR
What’s coming next in the world of cabin IFEC systems is a continued evolution of the IFEC wireless network concept, where much of what airlines rely on to provide passengers with cabin content is driven by wireless transmissions means and next-generation devices such as augmented and virtual reality, according to Ng Yung Han, vice president of production innovation for Singapore Airlines.
“By early 2020, our entire long-haul fleet will have in-flight connectivity, and by around mid-2021, 100 percent of our fleet will have Wi-Fi and GSM services. We are partnering with IFE providers, Panasonic and Thales, for our in-flight entertainment, and Panasonic and SITAONAIR using Inmarsat’s satellite network for in-flight connectivity,” he told Avionics.
The Asia Pacific carrier operates one of the world’s largest and most diverse fleets of commercial airliners, including the Airbus A330, A350 and A380-800 as well as Boeing’s 777-300ER and 787-10. Each of these different aircraft types feature cabin systems, embedded electronics and computing architectures that represent generational leaps in technology.
Airbus, for example, eliminated traditional area distribution computing boxes and wall mounted overhead monitors on the A350, instead using a fiber optic seat-to-seat cable network. Boeing’s latest in-production 777 models feature interface kits that can establishe a protocol for electrical requirements and timing, built-in test equipment and maintenance and control logic standards. This provides a standard interface for third party suppliers to install ARINC 628 Part 3 compliant IFE technology for audio, passenger services, video and gaming.
“Currently, we have a few IFEC systems in our fleet, but this is due to different generations of aircraft and systems. We are in the process of completing the upgrade [of] our SwiftBroadband-enabled aircraft to the latest GX Aviation high-speed broadband system,” said Yung Han.
In 2018, Singapore launched its own personalized in-flight entertainment system called “KrisWorld” that is being retrofitted across its entire fleet of aircraft, a decision driven by the application’s more personalized and customizable user interface. KrisWorld also reflects a major trend that airlines are using to establish increasingly wireless architectures in their cabins: create a centralized portal or network to host television shows, movies, gaming, and other applications that are refreshed with new content and features on a month-to-month basis.
Another future area where Singapore may also consider investment is the use of virtual reality, but not only from the passenger experience perspective, says Yung Han.
“Virtual reality (VR) technologies and tools have in more recent years made it possible for airlines and designers to test out new cabin concepts and explore space without having to wait for physical mock-ups,” he said. “This has improved the design process and shortened development time considerably. The level of detail that VR can now [achieve] also means it is possible for airlines to produce and introduce new cabin products to customers ahead of the physical completion of the real thing.”
However, having a cabin full of passengers suspended in augmented reality in such close proximity to each other is a reality that Singapore and other airlines adopting trials of VR headsets have to consider.
Several airlines are using the same company as Singapore Airlines to evaluate the use of virtual reality for IFE on passenger-carrying flights. Munich-based Inflight VR makes the headsets which are designed specifically for cabin environments with integration into cabin management systems and networks.
Inflight VR’s headset connects wirelessly to cabin servers and uses a software development kit that makes externally developed VR content available for passengers. Their headset is now in its third generation and features an augmented reality camera. Cabin management system integration with the headset also allows cabin crews to send safety messages and other notifications to passengers through the headset.
Other airlines trialing their virtual reality technology include Iberia, Jin Air, El Al, British Airways and Sun Express.
“In some cases, VR can be a replacement for an embedded IFE system, specifically from an economical standpoint,” Moritz Engler, founder and CEO of Inflight VR told Avionics. “In others, there’s place for both and it will become a symbiosis. We are already capable of streaming content to the device in addition to the 256GB local storage.”
Wireless IFE and Connectivity in Focus
According to Valour Consultancy’s July 2019 report analyzing trends among wireless IFEC technology providers, Gogo, Panasonic Avionics, Global Eagle, Viasat and Thales collectively account for just over three-quarters of all aircraft in-service that feature some form of connectivity or digital entertainment onboard.
How airlines customize their cabins really comes down to their identity and operational structure. Paris-based La Compagnie, at the luxury end of the wireless IFEC spectrum, has deployed free Viasat Wi-Fi across its fleet of all-business class Airbus A321s and Boeing 757s that fly between New York and Paris. Every seat features Zodiac’s RAVE wireless IFE system to give passengers a selection of up to 45 different movies that are refreshed on a monthly basis.
Jean-Charles Perino, co-founder of La Compagnie, told Avionics that the RAVE system has provided the type of wireless, network-centric strategy they use to provide free connectivity and content to every passenger on what the carrier describes as a “business class revolution.”
“Our Zodiac Rave IFE system isn’t connected to an external internet solution,” Perino said. “Content is embedded in an internal server which then loads content into each individual passenger screen and afterwards the unit is no longer dependent on the network. However, things can happen and just in case of a server or individual screen issue, some spare screens are present on board and can be replaced while the plane is airborne by the flight attendants.”
“Viasat has a chat available 24/7 on the portal to assist passengers. We also send real time notifications to the Viasat team so they are aware of any disruption and can assist in real time if needed.”
Elsewhere in Europe, as Tap Portugal’s fleet size crosses the 100-airplane mark with its first flights on Airbus 330neos between Lisbon and several U.S. destinations, the airline is just as focused on perfecting its business model and strategy around enabling new IFEC technologies for passengers.
Currently, 18 of Tap Portugal’s aircraft feature connectivity, a number that will increase to 35 by the end of 2021, Miguel Ferreira, IFEC manager at Tap Portugal told Avionics. Ferreira said Tap sees connectivity — not necessarily IFE — as a powerful marketing and communication tool.
One aspect of their IFEC strategy that Tap is still perfecting is the business model, which Ferreira compares to the way hotels deploy and operate internet access on their properties.
“The business model is intrinsically linked to the airline identity,” he said. “Some airlines will see it as a good source of ancillary revenue, others will try to build a sponsorship model around the service. Some will gather the passenger leads and do business with that. Others may focus on using that channel for building operational efficiencies. There’s no magic recipe for the perfect IFC business model.”
Recently, Tap started allowing free Wi-Fi-enabled text messaging on passenger mobile devices. On their A330neo fleet, there are Panasonic Avionics IFE systems, USB and power outlets on every seat. Aside from connectivity, the A330neo Tap flies includes LED cabin lights that can produce up to 16.7 million different color combinations and 24 customizable lighting scenarios.
Ferreira said connectivity will remain the centerpiece of their future cabin passenger experience strategy, as they plan to layer in new applications on top of their broadband connectivity channel in the near future.
“We have several projects and use cases that are sitting on top of connectivity channel,” he said. “The ones that we found to be most valuable are related to e-shopping possibilities and also crew devices and crew applications.”
Brazil’s largest commercial carrier, LATAM Airlines, is in a similar position to Tap Portugal, as the operator first started offering Gogo 2Ku in November 2018. Twenty-seven of their Airbus A319s and A320s currently feature connectivity, Joao de Moraes, senior manager of cabin design for LATAM Airlines Group told Avionics.
LATAM passengers are now offered three different onboard connectivity packages, including messing, light browsing and streaming, the last of which is a full bandwidth experience in-flight allowing the use of popular streaming platforms.
Moraes said LATAM is trying to gauge passenger and flight crew feedback on the use of Gogo as it operates more and more connected flights.
“We receive the majority of our feedback from passengers through our crew members and post-flight surveys, which helps us to measure their satisfaction with the service as part of our continuous improvement process,” Moraes said. “We also provide access to Gogo’s ‘Care Chat,’ which enables passengers to address any questions they might have about connectivity while flying on one of our connected aircraft. This is in real time and at no additional cost.”