When JetBlue first equipped its Airbus A320s with antennas broadcasting satellite television service from DirecTV onto high-resolution backseat television screens, it revolutionized the concept of In-flight Entertainment (IFE). But in 2015, IFE has been transformed to focus more on what passengers want to see on demand versus what's installed and readily available to them. Commercial and business aviation operators are embracing a new cabin environment where passengers upload, download and wirelessly sync to content and new forms of media by just swiping a touchscreen.
"Operators are responding to consumer desires to bring their own devices … by creating IFE portals that allow cabin passengers to download either applications that allow them to run the content, or simply sync to the content from their own devices to a server embedded in the aircraft," says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group.
Airlines, charter operators and fractional jet providers are all experiencing a shift in their customers' demand for unique, customized cabin entertainment based on their own desires. Avionics Magazine spoke with Airbus and Boeing, and five of the world’s largest airlines with combined fleets of 1,008 total aircraft across three different countries to unveil what the evolving on-demand cabin environment looks like.
The Airbus A350XWB recently rolled out of the factory in Toulouse and, upon entering service, it is the first Airbus airframe to feature a fourth generation IFE architecture. Under the fourth generation architecture, Airbus has made the baseline IFE infrastructure scalable and easier to upgrade. Among the features are a fiber-optic backbone, hardwired for high bandwidth and Ultra High Definition (Ultra-HD) with 3-D capable screens cabin wide.
“The ‘future-proof’ IFE of the A350 XWB delivers high-definition content to all passengers, featuring for the first time 12 inch screens in Economy class and touch screen control. Its simpler architecture results in a leaner physical integration. For example, the A350 XWB is the only aircraft which maintains the cabin floor flat even with IFE installed,” says Patrick Candelier, cabin services product marketing manager at Airbus.
Under the fourth generation architecture, Airbus introduced a fiber optic backbone, which provides five times the throughput per passenger of the previous generation. Traditional area distribution boxes, which were a constant source of zonal failure in previous IFE generations, have also been eliminated, and the wall mounted overhead monitors are now fed from the seat to a set cable network.
“The integration of the latest generation IFE platforms into the seat preserves passengers’ legroom and also gives them the ability to connect their own personal electronic devices, such as a smartphone, tablet or laptop to their screen,” says Candelier. “Not only can they recharge their devices, but can complement the airline’s entertainment offer with their own content, whilst benefiting from the viewing comfort of the high definition larger screens available on-board.”
Finally, on the A350 XWB and all of its current in production aircraft, Airbus provides a major component of IFE, with its Airline Network Architecture and standard SwiftBroadband (SBB) satellite communications connectivity.
Airbus also wanted to keep costs down for airlines, along with a flexible architecture that can be customized with aftermarket products.
“Each seat column (nine in total) provides redundancy by design, at no additional cost, thanks to the unique star/ring architecture,” says Candilier. “In short, the A350 XWB IFEC system confers a quantum leap in IFE both for the passenger experience as well as the airline economics.”
Across its various airframe types, Boeing works to implement a standard digital architecture that allows for a simplified interface to the aircraft systems. For example, across its 777 and 747 models, Boeing's interface kit establishes 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.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes Cabin Systems Manager John Craig says today's on-demand cabin is primarily driven by the growing availability of airborne Wi-Fi networks, as well as ease of in-cabin content syncing between passengers' personal devices and onboard file servers and wireless access points. "The growing trend in IFE today is with passenger connectivity and wireless streaming of content to personal devices," he says. "The installation of Wi-Fi networks that allow for streaming of onboard content to personal devices is growing and seen, by some, as a direct competitor to traditional embedded IFE systems. The Wi-Fi network can then be paired with an off-board broadband satellite communication system to enable Internet connectivity to the passenger."
Future proofing to allow for rapid incorporation of new cabin on-demand concepts, such as the partnerships JetBlue recently developed with several different third party media providers, is another focus for Boeing. Growing on-the ground consumer on-demand content distribution and subscription services, such as Netflix, Hulu, and others has conditioned consumers to expect to be able to watch whatever they want, when they want.
“The IFE and Connectivity suppliers continue to drive forward taking full advantage of the latest consumer electronic technology and leveraging that technology for in-flight solutions,” says Craig. “Boeing is focused on providing the most advanced and flexible airplane network and infrastructure to accommodate this new technology in the most efficient and timely manner possible.”
Etihad Airways is one of the largest growing Middle Eastern carriers, with a current fleet of 105 Airbus and Boeing passenger airplanes, and another 200 aircraft on firm order. Every aircraft in the fleet features a mixture of onboard Wi-Fi, mobile connectivity, and seven channels of live TV. Aside from connectivity, Etihad's evolving on-demand cabin features Audio Video On Demand (AVOD) services with on-demand movies, television shows, radio channels, and a CD library.
"Our E-BOX IFE system, features a personal TV screen in each seat and hundreds of hours of on-demand entertainment that includes over 100 movies, 250 TV shows, 16 radio channels, a 350 CD library, and up to 60 games," says Calum Laming, vice president of guest experience at Etihad Airways. "Guests can also make use of seat-to-seat calls and seat-to-seat chat features that allow them to communicate with friends and family, seated in other parts of the aircraft."
The E-Box system, featured on long haul A380s and Boeing 787s, features video touch screen handsets, capacitive-touch monitors, 3-D moving maps displays, and Android games. Etihad has also stepped up their on-demand, in-seat features by implementing an audio and video filtering functionality that allows passengers rearrange the movie and CD listings on their screens per their preference. So, for example, during a large sporting event such as last year's FIFA World Cup, which was broadcast live on Etihad aircraft, passengers could watch the game visually while listening to music from the carrier's content library.
"On the retail side, we have added an onboard shopping section which is comparable to up-market online stores and which allows guests to shop from the comfort of their seats. Premium guests can also order beverages from their seats with a choice of mixers using our [Food and Beverage] F&B application," adds Laming.
In the near future, Laming says the airline will continue to evolve its on-demand cabin entrainment, by evaluating new content streaming technologies, digital headsets and more integration of mobile smart phone and tablet applications into their IFE ecosystem.
All Virgin Atlantic aircraft feature a system that allows passengers connect their own devices to the seat-back monitor to play their stored content in high definition. But lately the London-based carrier has been highly focused on improving the on-demand cabin experience across its fleet of Boeing 787s, which include the new Vera Touch 2 IFE system with more than 400 hours of curated on-demand content.
They have also incorporated some unique social media and other unique digital Wi-Fi-based elements to their cabin experience, says Ruben Arnold, director of brand and customer engagement at Virgin Atlantic.
"As part of the 787 Dreamliner experience, customers have the opportunity to take a #SkyHighSelfie," says Arnold. "Developed in conjunction with Wavealot, this bespoke application allows customers to check in on Facebook and share their location with their friends and followers mid-flight. The app will allow one check-in per person and customers can purchase the Wi-Fi to continue the conversation. The app will also act as a mile-high discussion forum where customers on the flight can chat and spark debate in the air."
Virgin has also added new on-demand features to the upper class cabin of the Boeing 787's bar area. "New to the Upper Class cabin is a 24 touchscreen monitor over the bar showing looped animations that complement the cabin environment, as well as the option to view the innovative map on a larger screen, watch a sport program or popular event with friends, or display a business presentation for a colleague over a shared meal at the bar." Passengers that have devices capable of syncing with it can also use that screen wirelessly to view their favorite programming.
On Virgin Atlantic flights, cabin systems also feature on-demand viewing of unreleased films, such as the children's film "Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure" which premiered onboard prior to being released in theaters.
"We also include content on our IFE that compliments other elements of the in-flight experience. We have guided in-flight wine tasting tutorials to help customers get the most out of selecting which wine they’d like to have with their meal," says Arnold.
Going forward, Virgin will look to continue to evolve the on-demand Dreamliner cabin experience.
"We’ve already added several more Dreamliners to our fleet, and our plan is to have at least 17 by 2018. As we launch the Dreamliner on more routes, there will be more opportunities to use its technology to engage with our customers to come," says Arnold.
United Airlines' principal IFE focus has been on investing in on-board technology that allows the delivery of a wide breadth of content and to make that available to customers free of charge across its fleet of 715 aircraft.
"We’re after a wide library of movies, television shows, full seasons of television shows, and tailoring more of the content experience toward what you and others are tending to these days. The days of turning on a TV and looking at linear program deciding what’s on are over," says Tarek Abdel Halim, managing director of passenger systems at United Airlines. "It’s all about on-demand, and being able to watch what you want, when you want to watch it. Our mindset is we need to deliver a similar experience to that on our aircraft."
To deliver that type of experience, United has implemented seat back embedded AVOD systems, as well as onboard servers that can stream content directly to passenger devices without a live Internet connection. But Halim admits that it is difficult to provide a cabin that truly addresses the individual on-demand viewing and entertainment preferences of each passenger.
"With millions of passengers throughout the year, we cannot expect to have an on-demand service that meets everyone’s tailored experience. But I think what is interesting is being able to address those user preferences, over time. Can we start to create a more tailored library for the passengers boarding? Can you pre-select content you’re interested in? Those will be areas we start to investigate," he says.
The Chicago-based carrier, as all of its competitors, is also laser-focused on constantly updating the IFE experience for its passengers.
"We talk to the airframe manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus; we talk to suppliers about this idea that we need to get more modular with more clear upgrade paths with greater frequency than traditional IFE has offered. I think they’re hearing that message. You’re starting to see it as you look at how they individually are approaching it. We’re from an airline point of view demanding that of our suppliers as we make IFE decisions," says Halim.
Halim said United's in-house experts are also constantly monitoring changes in consumer technologies, and are looking at future innovations around "3-D, 360-degree viewing, and virtual reality." To achieve a true on-demand cabin in the future though, where passengers are able to view content in the cabin on demand as they do on the ground with IP-based applications such as HBO Go and Xfinity, the answer might be in the digital storage cloud.
"Over time, the real answer to this question is through connectivity. Can the cost to deliver high speed bandwidth to every passenger that allows them to access their own cloud-based content be achievable in the near future?" says Halim.
"I think airlines are in the content-curating space for the reason that we can’t just give you access to our own library. Its clear we’re heading toward a cloud-based content world on the ground where, through our own content deals, through our own cable, satellite and other subscriptions, we’re tailoring our own content needs for our own tastes. The ideal scenario is we facilitate that through connectivity over time. That requires more advancement in the technology and the infrastructure."
JetBlue has a fleet of more than 100 aircraft with on-demand cabins that feature high-speed Ka-band satellite-based Internet connectivity, and a Ku-band signal for DirecTV as well. The airline plans to have its entire fleet connected by the end of next year, but the third party media distribution deals JetBlue continues to form drive the internal on-demand environment. In July, JetBlue entered a partnership with Major League Baseball's (MLB) interactive media and Internet company MLBAM, which allows airborne passengers to stream MLB.TV on-demand. JetBlue cabins also feature on-demand breaking news from The Wall Street Journal, and visual content from PBS, NatGeo, Vice, Harper Collins, and Time, Inc., among others. Soon, Amazon Prime members will also get the ability to start streaming content for free, while non-members will have the option to purchase that content for viewing. This is possible because JetBlue's Fly-Fi service offers in-flight connection speeds of up to 20 mbps per device.
"We launched Fly-Fi two years ago and it was really about just having Internet access," says Jaime Perry, vice president of brand and product development at JetBlue. "But now, we see more demand from customers who have come to expect to have the capability to watch whatever they want, when they want, whether they're at home or flying at 40,000 fleet over the Atlantic Ocean. So we’ve launched partnerships with The Wall Street Journal and Major League Baseball and a bunch of other partners. It allows us to keep refreshing the offering and giving better value to our customers without actually making physical changes to the aircraft, which is the hard part. I expect you’ll see others start to go down that path as well. Put as much hardware on as you can at one go and then leverage software and content in upgrades to customers."
Long term, Perry wants his airline to continue to invest in onboard hardware and software that facilitates an on-demand cabin experience.
"We’ve made all these enhancements to allow them to watch what they want to watch,” he says, adding that JetBlue is finding some unintended consequences of this offer. “We’re moving toward a world where we have to install in-seat power because everybody using their own devices, which need to be charged," says Perry.
"The long term plan is to continue to give customers the ability and the tools to access whatever content they want whenever they want. That’s clearly what people are used to now, and it’s increasingly what they’re coming to expect."
Hawaiian is an example of a carrier that has taken strides to incorporate aspects of the region it flies within into its onboard IFE experience. "We understand why our guests choose us," says Reena Awana, senior director for product development at Hawaiian Airlines. "They choose us to start their Hawaii vacation the moment they get on board. So, working harder to ensure we utilize our IFE systems to the fullest to help accomplish that experience is something we are passionate about doing now and into the future."
Among the content offered on the AVOD systems are destination videos highlighting places to visit in Hawaii, as well as foreign language movies curated for each country that the airline flies to.
The island carrier's A330s feature their most advanced IFE tech, with embedded touch screens and USB charging ports at every seat. On the 767 fleet, to augment the older style traditional overhead systems, Hawaiian now offers passengers the option to rent Apple iPad minis, which feature on-demand movies, shows and games.
Awana says the airline is also focused on continuing to upgrade its IFE experience with a focus on reducing the number of embedded servers and boxes required to deliver on-demand content.
"The prospect of reducing weight and lowering operating costs while staying at the forefront of innovation is always of interest to us, and streaming solutions can provide those benefits," says Awana. "Another consideration, however, is that the adoption of that technology among our guests is still ongoing, and If a guest is not prepared to use that technology (not aware of the offer or doesn’t have a working device) their in-flight experience is impacted. Properly communicating with guests and preparing them for streaming cabin environments is critical to ensuring consistent and fulfilling IFE offers as a part of the guest experience."
As the on-demand cabin concept continues to evolve, one of the primary focuses of the suppliers of the hardware and software that powers these capabilities is a move toward a truly wireless cabin environment. Michael Planey, a former American Airlines product manager and U.S. Air Force systems engineer, says that despite the seemingly wireless cabin experience passengers are currently enjoying, the hidden myriad of cabling, wiring and electronic components is the key to providing this new on-demand level of cabin entertainment.
“In a traditional seat-embedded system, there is usually a bank of servers (usually two to six units depending on architecture and redundancy) located in the electronics bay with a content loading portal in a galley or other cabin location. The servers control both the hosting and delivery of content, sent via coaxial, fiber-optic or wireless networks,” says Planey.
Bill Rowell, senior manager of technical sales at Honeywell Aerospace agrees.
“We see the request for a true wireless system,” says Rowell. “Where we have today the ability to wirelessly stream content to your device and wirelessly control the system from your device, what the installers would like to see is they would like the source to send its content to the bulkhead or embedded seat display, where the Blu-ray would be the transmitter and the monitor would be a receiver; because the installers would like to get away from having to run cabling between all the components onboard the airplane.”