April 2011 | Airlinetrends.com visited the recent Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg and found that, besides the renewed interest in lighter and smarter interior solutions – as fuel prices are rising steeply once again –the most interesting developments today are taking place in in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC).
Rapid developments in consumer electronics have been fueling consumer expectations towards the entertainment offered onboard (blame Apple). Says Henry Harteveldt, principal analyst at Forrester Research, “Technology is the new steak dinner for the airline world. People want to stay charged up, be in control, stay connected, and airlines must provide that premium service.”
In recent years, several airlines have already rolled out in-flight Internet (mainly on domestic flights in the U.S and intercontinental flights of Emirates and Lufthansa) as well as USB integration between seatback systems and personal devices such as iPods and digital cameras. Low cost carriers, meanwhile, have started to rent out popular devices such as the iPad (eg. Iceland Express, Jetstar, airBaltic) and Sony PSPs (eg. easyJet, Jeju Air) to passengers.
New competition in IFEC
Dominated for years by IFEC heavyweights Panasonic and Thales, the IFEC market is getting more diverse these days. New entrants include Lumexis (fiber optics-based IFEC system), seat-centric systems such as IMS’ Rave and Intelligent Avionics’ Aura, wireless IFEC (Lufthansa Systems’ BoardConnect) and light-weight integrated IFE/seat solutions such as Sicma (SiT) and Weber/Panasonic. Says IFEC specialist Mary Kirby, “While no two systems are exactly alike, all the new entrants share the same message: their platforms are substantially less heavy and less costly than legacy in-seat IFE solutions.”
Mimicking developments on the ground, next generation seatback screens offer high definition-quality views and are much easier to navigate. For example, Lumexis’ fiber-to-the-screen IFE system offers a wide, high-definition (HD) screen, while Panasonic says its new eX3 system will let passengers in premium classes enjoy large HD and even 3D displays, video conferencing, and a true home theater entertainment experience.
Improving the prodding action currently required for in-flight entertainment screens, new IFEC systems such as the IMS Rave and Panasonic eX3 offer similar touchscreens as on devices such as the Apple iPad and the Samsung Galaxy, Passengers can swipe across screens, scroll through text and instantly jump around the system, with a touch of a fingertip. Says Harry Gray, IMS’ VP Sales and Marketing, “This all makes the product more appealing and less intimidating to the general passenger population, especially those that are using the [Apple-like] devices today.”
The latest systems by Panasonic and Thales are based on Google’s Android mobile operating system, which like smartphones, allows for the installation of apps. For example, Panasonic will create its own ‘Panasonic App Store’, which will include apps created by airlines and companies other than Panasonic. Says Panasonic-partner CoKinetic CEO Kris Stevens: “With the launch of the Panasonic Avionics App Store, the time to market for new content should be dramatically shorter. […] Developers would then see their ideas flying in a matter of weeks, and passengers will enjoy the same type of diverse, quirky, cutting-edge content they’ve come to expect in other market segments.”
Already available as part of Emirates’ ICE system in Business and First Class, touchscreen remote handsets are growing in popularity. For example, Virgin Atlantic’s new Panasonic IFE system – which the airline has just introduced on its new A330 aircraft – offers passengers in Premium Economy a touchscreen remote control handset. In the airline’s words: “Easy and intuitive to use, passengers can use [the device] to do two things at once, such as follow the moving map system without having to stop the movie they are watching on the main screen.”
This new functionality reflects the increasing number of consumers who multi-task while consuming media. For example, a recent survey by Deloitte found that 42 percent of American consumers surf the Internet while watching the television, 29 percent talk on their phones while the TV is on and 26 percent of consumers are texting.
On a similar note, Thales at the end of 2010 introduced its ‘TouchPMU’ handheld, a menu-driven touchscreen device based on the Android operating system. The TouchPMU is a multi-tasking complement to the in-seat IFEC system and works in two ways: As an extension of the Thales IFEC system, passengers can watch a movie on the seatback screen while using the TouchPMU to check for example the current flight position or local weather. As a standalone media access device, the TouchPMU can also store a wide range of apps, as found in the Android Marketplace. Qatar Airways will be the first airline to feature the TouchPMU system on its forthcoming Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
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