Above the clouds

This article was written by  Brendan Scott and published in the Innovations magazine #4.

In-flight entertainment once amounted to little more than a magazine and, for the lucky few, a strictly scheduled movie broadcast through the tinniest of headphones. Today, in-flight entertainment is undergoing a new burst of innovation as it keeps pace with the giant leaps being made in consumer tech.
 
To understand where the in-flight entertainment and connectivity market is heading, it’s important to look at where it has been. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that in-seat systems offering on-demand video and radio first emerged and a good number of years later that such features became commonplace.
 
“In-flight entertainment began as a very vertical market,” says Fred Schreiner, chief technical officer, Thales InFlyt Experience. “That vertical has evolved over the past few decades with improvements in size, weight and power, and we are now adding connectivity.”

The hardware used to meet passengers’ entertainment needs became more efficient with the introduction of smarter communications and data transmissions systems. This is partly thanks to advancements made in technologies used by the airplanes themselves to communicate over ethernet bus networks. It also has much to do with harvesting features that have underpinned the boom in tablets and smartphones, from compact memory to HD displays and high-speed microprocessors. However, physical advances are only half of the story.

“The software became more modular with more open architecture and then came applications, so it developed and matured in a vertical sense. This was followed by the explosion of connectivity and the proliferation of tablets, and all of the infrastructure and technology advances that came with that. The IFEC business opportunity combines the classic in-flight entertainment vertical market with the connected world,” says Schreiner.

To ensure that Thales InFlyt Experience’s systems are as accessible and user-friendly as possible, in 2012 the decision was taken to adopt Google’s Android operating system for  Thales’ own systems. Not only does this make them familiar to passengers, the open source platform means that apps built by airlines and software developers can easily be integrated into Thales’ entertainment and productivity suite.

 
A changing perspective

 Just as the technology is evolving, so too are people’s attitudes to flying. Now more than ever, travellers want and expect their journeys to be as seamless as possible. Not long ago, the flight alone was considered the journey. Now it is seen as one link in the chain, explains Vincent Lebunetel, head of innovation at Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

“Today, you want to go from your office in London to your meeting place in New York. Travellers expect to be able to book all of those components in one go – air is just one piece of that,” says Lebunetel.
Connectivity is of particular importance to the business traveller. Whereas consumers may be content occupying themselves en route to two weeks of sun, sea and sand, for the business traveller, productivity is essential. A recent survey conducted by Carlson Wagonlit Travel measured stress triggers and found that a lack of internet connection was the second biggest concern for business travellers, behind only the loss of baggage.

Thales InFlyt Experience : The Smart Choice for the Connected Airline

Governments have taken note: early in 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to invest £50m in free Wi-Fi access across the UK’s train network from 2017 to promote business. In France, the state railway operator SNCF is looking to equip its high speed TGV trains with wireless internet access. Airlines would do well to follow suit.

 

“For all other aspects of travel – from ground transport to the hotel – Wi-Fi and connectivity are now becoming mainstream,” says Lebunetel. “That is not the case for most flights. That is one of the biggest differences between airlines and all other components of business travel.”

As far as in-flight connectivity is concerned, the US is a clear frontrunner. More of its flights are offering connectivity and they tend to provide greater bandwidth to users, particularly on domestic routes. This is largely because those routes tend to be shorter haul and so use air-to-ground (ATG) technologies.
 Clearly, when passing over vast stretches of ocean, ATG is not an option, and today’s Ku-band satellite technology is slow by comparison and relatively expensive because it is shared by fewer users. Ku-band was developed with the domestic user in mind and so is not best suited to connecting airplanes cruising at speeds of 500mph or more.

This is where Thales’ relationship with Inmarsat comes in. Last year, the two signed an agreement making Thales a value-added reseller of Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX) satellite bandwidth. This is the first of its kind to offer broadband speeds of up to 49Mbps using Ka-band technology.
 
“Our approach is to embrace the technology that best fits the business model of the airline,” says William Huot-Marchand, vice president of global sales at Thales InFlyt Experience. “For an airline taking regional routes, we will provide regional connectivity and for long range and international routes, we have Inmarsat’s dedicated global Ka network.”

Not only that, having options allows for intelligent routing. If an aircraft can hook up to both ATG and satellite access, it can optimise the best connection at the lowest cost to the end user, offering them more choice.

This expansion of available bandwidth is totally transforming the in-flight experience. In addition to conventional connectivity, allowing passengers to surf the web and access the cloud, data-heavy services such as television streaming are now becoming a reality.  Thales has been making serious in-roads in this area since acquiring LiveTV in 2014, now integrated as the Connectivity &  TV business segment of  Thales InFlyt Experience.
 

Several hundred planes flown by JetBlue, WestJet, Frontier Airlines, Virgin Australia, United Airlines and Azul Brazilian Airline are already equipped with LiveTV’s in-seat displays.
According to Schreiner, the company’s streaming service is fully operational in the US, while it is being flight-trialled in Europe via Spanish airline Vueling.

LiveTV and Thales are an ideal match. Where LiveTV’s expertise lies in retrofitting the narrowbody market, around 80 per cent of Thales’ IFE business is line-fit, its systems installed on new, predominantly widebody aircraft at the factory.

The new A350 is a case in point, explains Patrick Candelier, head of Airbus cabin services marketing:

 

“With the A350, we wanted to leapfrog the existing quality of service for the passenger. We worked with Thales and Panasonic to jointly develop a fourth generation of IFE. The result of this complementary work is a truly improved and differentiated IFE architecture that means a better viewing experience for the passenger and a more economical system for the airlines.”
 

The skys the limit

 
The upshot of installing the best possible IFEC technology is that airlines can derive more revenue, either by selling connectivity or offering ancillary products and travel services through state-of-the-art IFEC systems. As it stands, airlines have yet to fully harness the potential of in-flight retail. Carriers such as Virgin America and Japan Airlines offer duty free through their in-seat and Wi-Fi systems, while passengers on Lufthansa’s A321s can make purchases from their seats to be delivered to their door. In-flight retail has huge potential.

Naturally, an airplane full of customers shopping online via near-field and Wi-Fi signals presents inherent security challenges. In this respect, Thales is at a significant advantage, having cemented a track record in merchant services that includes developing point of sale card payment terminals.
 

What does the future hold for IFEC?

 In terms of hardware, tomorrow’s systems will offer higher resolution and brighter graphic user interfaces (GUIs), with hardware designs hewing closely to the interiors of new-build aircraft. This will entail working closely with seat manufacturers, as well as airlines to incorporate their evolving branding into the GUIs.

One of the biggest challenges will be keeping up with the rapid pace of consumer tech, which sees next generation tablets and phones released annually. Schreiner says this is where future-proofing is essential in order to incorporate new technology without footing huge recurring costs. For example, Thales’ existing IFEC systems employ processors whose circuit boards have a consistent footprint, making it easy to replace them with faster iterations as and when they are released.
On the connectivity side, the coming years will be about ensuring access to the widest pipe of bandwidth possible to meet the growing demands of passengers, who are quickly coming to expect the very same service available at their hotels and in their homes as when they are flying at 30,000 feet. The only way is up for air travel.