Airlines go wireless with their in-flight entertainment systems

Updated December 2011
In another sign that in-flight entertainment (IFE) is increasingly mimicking the fast developments in digital consumer electronics (witness the flurry of recent announcements by airlines to make the Apple iPad available to passengers and crew). A similar burst of activity is currently taking place in wireless in-flight entertainment (IFE) as airlines are responding to the growing number of travellers bringing their own devices on board.

Essentially an intranet on a plane that replaces the several kilometers of cables needed to connect every single seat, with a wireless network that allows passengers to connect to content on an onboard server with their own laptops, smart phones or tablet PCs, wireless IFE is a relatively cheap and light-weight solution for airlines. The system vastly expands the ‘standard’ IFE features with services such as online shopping and reservations, destination information, real-time travel information and seat-to-seat chat. Following early roll-outs by American Airlines, Delta and Brazilian LCC Gol, half a dozen of other airlines are currently testing (or have announced) a wireless IFE service.

GoGo ‘Vision’
American Airlines (AA) in early August 2011 launched the “initial phase” of Gogo’s new ‘Vision’ inflight streaming video product, which AA calls ‘Entertainment On Demand’. Passengers flying on AA transcontinental fleet of 14 B767-200s on routes between Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York JFK, can wirelessly stream more than 100 movies and TV shows from an in-flight library to “select types” of wi-fi enabled laptops (video here). American is the first airline in the world to offer streaming video to passengers via their own wireless devices from an onboard server.

How it works: Customers click on the Entertainment On Demand banner on AA’s in-flight wi-fi homepage, select a movie or TV show from the titles in the content library, create an account or log in, enter the form of payment (all major credit and debit cards are accepted) and click “rent.” Passengers can sort titles by movie or TV, genre, length of feature and other categories, and trailers are available for complimentary viewing prior to renting content. Movies and TV shows will remain accessible for viewing after the customer has landed – movies for 24 hours and TV shows for 72 hours.  The service charges an “introductory price” of USD 0.99 per TV show and USD 3.99 per movie, and will not require customers to purchase inflight Wi-Fi to utilize the Entertainment On Demand feature. See this video for more.

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Gogo says it is currently working to increase the number of compatible devices. The service is currently available on AA’s transcontinental fleet of 14 B767-200s which serve routes between Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York JFK. AA plans to equip its entire Wi-Fi enabled fleet with the service, beginning later this year. American currently offers wireless Internet on 208 aircraft and says it will outfit its entire fleet with the service by the end of 2012.

American Airlines’ vice president of marketing, Rob Friedman, predicts that other airlines will scramble to offer a similar service, soon. “Letting our customers own the technology while we give them content to download at their own discretion is a terrific option for people who like having that control,” he said.

Delta Air Lines
Besides the rollout of the Gogo ‘Vision’ wireless video-on-demand on AA flights, Gogo and Delta in October 2011 introduced a more enhanced version of the system, which also offers ecommerce, flight information and social networking. Called ‘Delta Connect’, passengers can also access the portal for free with their own devices to learn the flight’s arrival gate number, access weather information, get help with missing baggage, order some food, book a restaurant via OpenTable, or rent a car. Delta Connect is available on over 550 wi-fi equipped domestic Delta aircraft, but the wireless video offer is only available on Delta’s fleet of 16 B757-300s.

Air China
In Mid-November, Air China launched its first live trial of Gogo’s wireless IFE system on a B737-800 that flies between Beijing and Chengdu and also installed the service on the Beijing-Shanghai route, operated by an A321. Passengers can surf to cached content on the onboard server to play online games, make hotel reservations and chat online with other passengers. The trial will run until December 31 and cabin crew has been instructed so they can help passengers to access the service (images here).

Lufthansa Systems ‘BoardConnect’
Meanwhile in Europe, German leisure carrier Condor in March 2011 announced it would install Lufthansa Systems’ BoardConnect wireless IFE system on two of its Boeing 767 aircraft. The airline reportedly would provide Business Class passengers with a complimentary ‘tablet-type’ device, while passengers in Economy passengers can access content stored on an onboard server via their own personal devices. However, ater an initial planned testing phase in the summer, which was rescheduled to the fall of 2011, it is unclear whether the BoardConnect system has been trialled by Condor yet.

Virgin America
The next airline to select Lufthansa Systems’ BoardConnect solution was Virgin America. In late 2012, the airline will introduce a new version of its Red IFE&C platform, which will include larger, high-definition touchscreen seatback monitors, full wi-fi connectivity and four times more entertainment content.

The wireless IFE, however, will not replace the current in-seat RED system, but rather complement it. According to Virgin America CEO David Cush, the system will allow the airline to offer passengers “the best of both worlds.” “Just offering a larger wi-fi pipe with no seatback entertainment as some of our competitors are doing is limiting given wi-fi bandwidth,” Cush said. “We want to give our travelers more options instead of fewer, including the ability to multitask across platforms – just as they do in their lives on the ground.” […] “Our focus on innovation is a core part of our business model and guest offering, and BoardConnect will allow us to […] pace the larger consumer trends in mobile technology.”

According to Abby Lunardini, VP of corporate communications for Virgin America, the airline also hope “to build in custom concierge service as well. For example, you can log on via your Elevate number and get your flight details, movie choices onboard, plan your in-flight meal, etc.” Earlier this year, Virgin America also said its new IFE&C system will support connected apps, such as Facebook and Twitter. Social gaming and real-time geolocation services could also be on the menu.

The new Red platform is currently undergoing back-end testing on a Virgin America A320, dubbed #nerdbird for the high number of passengers that log onto the wi-fi system on flights between San Francisco and Boston.

Qantas
Australian Business Traveller reports that Qantas will trial the BoardConnect system in combination with Apple’s iPad in a six-week trial that will start in mid-January 2012, using wi-fi to stream content to the tablets from a central server onboard the aircraft. All 254 passengers on a dedicated Qantas B767-300 will be issued with an iPad 2 that runs a specialised ‘Q Streaming’ app, which provides passengers access to tv shows and movies.

The service will be provided free of charge and passengers in business class will also get a flexible stand that holds the iPad on the fold-down meal tray. The iPads will be ‘locked down’, bypassing Apple’s normal home screen for the Q Streaming app, so they don’t work outside the aircraft’s wireless network. Towards the end of the initial six week trial Qantas says it will allow passengers to view the streaming content on their own iPad by making the Q Streaming app available as a free download from the iTunes App Store. The system also has the capability to work with Android tablets, notebooks and even smartphones, although the trial is an iPad-only program.

The aim of the Q Streaming pilot is to test whether the Boardconnect system is a suitable alternative on Qantas aircraft without wired IFE systems, such as its fleet of 767s, for example to make sure that the wireless IFE technology has the bandwidth to handle a large number of simultaneous requests. If successful, the system will be rolled out on ten Boeing 767-300s, on which Qantas likely will install seats with build-in iPad brackets, just as offered by its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar.

Virgin Australia
Virgin Australia just announced it will trial the BoardConnect streaming IFE solution from mid-2012 on a single Boeing 737-800. Passengers will be offered movies, television, games and audio content along with service information such as destination guides and travel offers. Each aircraft will also have a limited number of tablets on board, which will be handed out free of charge to business class passengers and available for rent at an undisclosed price to those in economy.

Row 44
US-based provided of Ku-band broadband Internet Row 44, is about to launch a new entertainment portal on Southwest’s wi-fi equipped B737s (images how the portal may look like here). In preparation, Row 44 has forged deals with Disney, Warner Bros., Universal and Fox to provide streaming content to Wi-Fi enabled devices. Passengers can also stream IPTV and content from CNBC, FOX News Channel and NBC Sports. Though, due to security concerns, the studios are not allowing streaming early window content. Some 200 Boeing 737s in Southwest Airlines’ fleet are expected to be fitted with Row 44′s in-flight Internet solution by the end of 2011.

Gol, AirAsiaX, Scoot
Brazilian low-cost carrier Gol in September 2011 was one of the first airlines to roll out a wireless IFE platform on board its B737 aircraft. Called ‘Gol No Ar’ (Gol On Air), the new service offers news, magazine and newspaper articles, TV shows, sports, games and music channels at no charge. The entertainment platform is automatically updated with the latest content on landing at nine airports in Brazil. Gol said it plans to offer the Gol No Ar service on 380 daily flights by year-end. At first, access will be available for laptops, iPhones and iPads, with other tablets and smartphones to follow in the future. Surprisingly for a low-cost airline, the service is free to passengers, who only need to have a Wi-Fi enabled device. See this video and images for more on ‘Gol No Ar’.

AirAsiaX
In Asia, AirAsia X, the long-haul low-cost affiliate of Malaysian-based AirAsia, has announced it will trial a wireless IFE system on the Kuala Lumpur to London route in early 2012. Some of the content will be available for free to passengers, whereas a fee will be charged for movies, music and e-magazines. Passengers without their own wi-fi-enabled device will be able to rent a tablet from the airline. The wireless IFE system will be provided by Tune Box, which is also part of the Tune Group, the company behind AirAsia and AirAsiaX.

Scoot
Singapore start-up airline Scoot will opt for iPads or Android tablets rented to customers instead of conventional in-seat video screens when the low-cost carrier launches in June next year. “We are definitely not doing in-seat screens.” “We’re looking at various IFE options including wireless streaming and including tablets, which could be iPad or they could be Android” Scoot CEO Campbell Wilson told Australian Business Traveller. Wilson’s ideal scenario is to stream movies, TV shows and music wirelessly to devices which the airline would rent out to customers, but he admits it’s “still very early days for wireless”. In the interim, Scoot may launch with content preloaded onto tablets, as currently offered by low-cost airlines such as Jetstar, airBaltic and Iceland Express.

Panasonic, Thales
Flightglobal reports that embedded IFE&C market leaders Panasonic Avionics and Thales are not watching idle on the sideline and are developing their own wireless streaming solutions. Panasonic says its new wireless IFE system, called eXW, can be offered as a standalone system or together with embedded IFE&C, and provides passenger access to a branded portal that offers news, information, video on demand, seat-to-seat chat, and catalogue shopping. Thales, meanwhile, is working together with Siemens on the development of a wireless addition to its TopSeries embedded IFE&C system.

Wireless IFE and tablets to become mainstream fast
In another sign that wireless IFE and tablets such as the iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab will become mainstream onboard aircraft in the next few years, Australian Business Traveller reports that Finnair is considering outfitting its upcoming A350s (the first of which will be delivered in 2014) with tablets like the Apple iPad. “Built-in entertainment systems are quite cumbersome and expensive, and they tend to get outdated very quickly,” Finnair CEO Mika Vehviläinen told the publication. “And the lifecycle of aircraft is very different to the lifecycle of electronics, especially consumer electronics, so it’s not a very good combination.” […] “There would be central servers with wireless so you could download and stream movies and music to the devices.” Vehviläinen said that eliminating built-in, centralised entertainment systems would save fuel — and money — by reducing weight.

A similar vision is voiced by KLM’s Managing Director Erik Varwijk, who reckons that the future for IFE lies in portable tablets. Says Varwijk, “Tablets not only offer better quality and more opportunties [for IFE] but they are less likely to crash than the current IFE systems. Moreover, tablets are lighter which saves on fuel costs.”

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