Wired IFE is Passe

But Not For Long Haul!

7 May 2014

More airlines in Asia Pacific region are embracing the wireless In-flight Entertainment (IFE) system by introducing on-board Wi-Fi and/or wireless inflight entertainment systems as more passengers use smartphones, notebooks, tablets and e-readers inside the cabin.

According to a study by Gogo, an inflight internet provider, there is evidence to suggest that wireless IFE makes perfect sense for Asian airlines due to growing demand from airline companies in Asia Pacific.

Latest airline IFE systems offer similar touchscreens as found on devices such as the Apple iPad and the Samsung Galaxy but nothing beats both for portability and ease of use. IFE suppliers like Panasonic and Thales are racing behind the technology introduced by Apple that they are playing catch-up with their system based on Google’s Android mobile operating system, which like smartphones and tablets, allows for the installation of apps.

Australian carrier Qantas pioneered this revolution in Asia Pacific when it introduced tablet-based IFE in 2013 followed closely by Philippine Airlines (PAL) which uses Apple's Ipad technology. But it was Japan Airlines (JAL) that introduce streaming content by  announcing that its passengers will be able to stream movies via their own devices on domestic flights, while All Nippon Airways (ANA) has launched an infotainment portal for tablets, laptops and smartphones. SilkAir, and Bangkok Airways has followed the trend.

Former Cathay Pacific CEO Tony Tyler admitted that they were caught off-guard by this revolution saying that “The bar is being set very high by Apple and others and our customers don’t understand why we can’t match it. Meanwhile, by the time an airline IT project comes to fruition, things have already moved on. Things have flipped. The consumer market is now driving innovation, rather than the business market.”

PAL recently unveiled its new regional business class seat without the wired IFE but with complementary Apple Ipad Mini with internet connectivity powered by OnAir. Economy class passengers have IFE and internet services for a fee via Apple Ipad, while its premium economy seats are equipped with power ports for laptop computers or handheld devices.

Japanese low-cost carrier Peach, a joint venture between All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Hong Kong-based First Eastern Investment Group was the first low cost carrier to offer wireless IFE services, while Philippines' Cebu Pacific pioneered Wifi connectivity in its aircraft when it entered agreement with Geneva-based company OnAir for internet connectivity. AirAsia followed suit in this growing thrend.

But this revolution doesn't fit well to long haul flights according to airline seat manufacturer Recaro.

“Airlines are increasingly asking for tablet holders and USB power slots,” says Recaro Aircraft Seating chief executive Mark Hiller.

“While I’m sure integrated IFE will die off on short-range flights, I’m not so sure about long-range.” said Hiller.

Airframers are also looking toward offering more flexible IFE solutions for long haul, but not without. Embedded inflight entertainment (IFE) systems have become synonymous with long-haul air travel, providing a welcome distraction to passengers seated in tight quarters for many hours. 

Airbus says wireless IFE does not work well for long haul flights because of endurance issues, and it may take time to recharge them to be available to the next set of users.

European Manufacturer Airbus sees order for the long haul A350 aircraft embedded with seat-back IFE, with line-fit option for wireless facility, but cannot be without the former, says Ingo Wuggetzer, Airbus vice president of cabin innovation and design.

Boeing also observed “an increase in wireless take-up” in the market “and interest by airlines,” but has not heard customers say they do not want embedded IFE for long-haul aircraft. IFE manufacturers Panasonic or Thales Avionics echoed similar views.

"Inflight connectivity will be available as an “and” not an “or” function", says Sean Sullivan, senior manager of cabin systems and connectivity for Boeing.

“Embedded IFE is not going to be replaced because of connectivity,” he said.

All Boeing aircraft leave the factory with Panasonic or Thales Avionics-embedded IFE systems. To date, the only wireless IFE solution offered by Boeing as a line-fit option is the Panasonic Avionics eXW product.

Despite the wireless IFE revolution, Singapore Airlines has recently launched its next generation IFE suite via Panasonic Avionics’ eX3 embedded IFE system and has confirmed that it has no plans to offer wireless IFE. Philippine Airlines will also upgrade its long haul product with Panasonic Avionics’ eX3 embedded IFE system, while China Southern confirmed that it will install Thales’ TopSeries AVANT IFEC system on its Boeing 777-300ERs.


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