Air Transport World


Fix it! IFE problems plague airlines

The introduction of interactive in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems has been marred by numerous software and hardware glitches that have frustrated airlines and their passengers, and spawned at least one lawsuit by a carrier against an IFE system maker.

Other airlines have disabled the interactive portion of the systems deliberately, rather than put up with the breakdowns and resulting passenger complaints.

However, this has not prevented the IFE industry from rushing in with systems that offer varying degrees of capability, with varying degrees of success. Nor has it stopped airlines from believing that the bugs will be ironed out and the systems made whole.

But while virtually all of the hardware manufacturers are claiming to have systems that are going into service-or will be ready to go into service soon-the software and airframe manufacturers are saying the systems won't be developed fully enough to meet the airlines' expectations for some time.

This rush to get interactive entertainment systems onto the world's airliners is being fed by quantum leaps in expenditures for IFE and communications. The World Airline Entertainment Assn. reported the doubling of expenditures between 1992 and 1994, from $400 million to $800 million, and that spending for this year is estimated at $1.2 billion. Airlines will spend between $3,500 and $8,500 per seat for the systems, depending on options.

Half of those expenditures are for the hardware, with "satellite telecommunications and in-flight telephony" representing another quarter. Significant expenditure growth in those two areas during 1996 resulted from the large number of widebody installations, WAEA said. Software expenditures also are growing significantly due to the broader introduction of "personal multichannel" video systems and the demand for a wider selection of programming, it said.

The first two interactive systems that were placed in service were the GECMarconi unit on United Airlines' Boeing 777s and the Hughes Avicom APAX-150 system on Northwest Airlines' 747s.

The makers, who have been pilloried for the problems with these systems, argue that they were state-of-the-art at that time and simply couldn't meet the expectations placed on them. Last summer, United, which had deactivated the system on its 777s owing to problems, filed suit against GEC-Marconi, which since has made the decision not to develop any new-generation IFE equipment, although it will continue to support current customers. Furthermore, the system no longer is compatible with the 777, owing to changes by Boeing.

Because of the lawsuit, GEC-Marconi would not discuss the system's problems or what it is doing to rectify them. However, an industry source noted that while the system was state-of-the-art, it just did not have sufficient power.

He explained: "When you start engineering for airline interactive systems, you build for what you have the day you begin. The system was engineered three years ago when a 386 [PC] board was a popular board and 25MHz was fast enough for everybody.

"Today, comparing a 386/25 to a Pentium processor ... you wouldn't be caught dead with a 386/25 in your office." The GEC-Marconi system also was going on the new 777, basically an "electric airplane that wasn't compatible to the [GEC] system."

Meanwhile, Northwest has not restored its system to interactive mode and declines to discuss the situation. "What went wrong was a miscalculation of what the robustness of the software needed to be," said Ken McNamara, president and CEO of Hughes Avicom, Northwest's vendor. "A lot of people misunderstood the software and underestimated what the capabilities had to be. So when [Northwest] loaded the systems on their airplanes in 1993, when they had 400 seats operating in the interactive mode with games and movies and shopping and the whole works, the software load kept crashing."

While conceding that Hughes bears some responsibility for the problem, McNamara says there is plenty of blame to go around. "Everybody was pushing the technology envelope and yet, nobody is really paying the premium that you need to pay for it. It is a high-risk business for everybody right now. The technology just isn't in the marketplace yet.

"To some extent, the aviation industry will be a bit of a follower because we don't have the massive number of units to put out there to absorb all the investment," he said.

McNamara said Hughes found two major issues affecting its early interactive IFE. The first was that the software developed for the system "was too complex in the sense that it did not operate efficiently." The second was that the two main computers that were driving the system "weren't robust enough for the airplane environment." The computers consisted of the primary access terminal, which was the main interface for the cabin crew and maintenance crews, and the digital file server.

Hughes then made the decision to back off and redesign the computers. Two of the major redesign features included "ruggedized hard disk drives," designed for airborne applications to withstand aircraft vibrations and the negative and positive G-loading, plus safeguards that allowed the computers to back each other up.

The software also was redone. An industry source noted that the early Hughes system was Nintendo-based and built around the Nintendo card, which was not intended to do anything but process Nintendo games.

Today, Hughes-Avicom is offering both the APAX-150 lIFE system and DirectTV Airborne, which provides live satellite broadcast television with the capability of providing up to 24 channels of live entertainment. DirectTV was introduced Aug. 9 on Delta Air Lines' Spirit of Delta 767.

`HIGH SUCCESS RATE'

McNamara also made the point that Hughes has developed a "very sophisticated test rack" that can simulate a fully loaded 747 or A340. This simulated in-flight testing has allowed "an extremely high success rate of the systems coming out of the factory going on the airplanes," he said.

The problems in today's systems will be overcome, manufacturers say. A working group consisting of ARINC's Cabin Equipment Interface Committee and the WAEA Technical Committee is developing standards that will enable any new system to be installed on any aircraft. These standards, ARINC 628, are being developed in stages, with the first stage already approved and the second and third expected to be out by year end. The fourth and final stage will be the most comprehensive, providing the backbone for integration of any systems on the world's airliners.

In the future, as Pentium processors become standard, interactive IFE systems will offer features such as gambling, passenger/crew communications and ground datalinks. One airline already is using the system to conduct in-flight surveys. But as with most technological advances, interactive is advancing one step at a time.

In the meantime, hardware manufacturers are starting to put partial systems on aircraft, with varying degrees of success. The APAX-150 is operating with limited capabilities on aircraft of Virgin Atlantic, Kuwait Airways, Aer Lingus and Air China. It also is on Emirates and still on Northwest, although only in the distributed format that allows passengers to choose from a selection of movies on a pre-programmed, prescheduled basis. None of the airlines using the APAX-150 system has video-on-demand, which will allow passengers to select their own movies and start-and-finish times, and is considered to be the Holy Grail of interactive entertainment,

In fact, the only systems flying with VOD are doing so as tests and reportedly are not doing well. As Hughes discovered and other manufacturers are learning, the physical properties of an aircraft in flight require more complex solutions to the more complex VOD technology. Hughes has pulled back on rosy forecasts for an early appearance of VOD and claims its unwillingness to guarantee delivery of the system caused it to lose the competition at Virgin Atlantic.

"Right now, [VOD] is a big gamble," said McNamara. "Nobody has VOD flying today. But it is going to happen. We were in full-scale development of VOD but made the decision back in April or May to postpone that-to stop work and focus all of our assets and resources on our current system and go for very, very high reliability with something that has lots and lots of functions, but at a moderate price."

Matsushita says its 2000E system has VOD capability but it is not on any of the installed systems. Singapore Airlines is expected to be the first Matsushita customer to get VOD once its reliability has been established. The system already is on 13 SIA aircraft and is being installed on the remainder of the fleet, a Singapore spokesperson said. It also is on Cathay Pacific, American Airlines and Air Canada, with varying ranges of capability, and is to be installed on Malaysia, Saudi Arabian and Korea Air.

The 2000E was selected early this summer by Virgin Atlantic for installation on all future acquired aircraft, which include two 747-400s and three A340s. The system will have 21 video channels, a games processor, eight audio channels and laptop-computer access. Matsushita said that its system will also have the capability of powering laptop computers, giving the passenger unlimited computer time in flight.

The bad news is that in order to use the laptop plug, the passenger will have to contact companies such as Ergo Mechanical Systems in Santa Monica, Calif., advise them of the type of laptop being used and order a special attachment cable. Added to that is the possibility that each make of laptop will have to be tested and certified for each aircraft type.

In announcing the $156.6 million contract, Virgin said it was going with the Matsushita system over Hughes, its current IFE provider, because of "the early capability of Matsushita to provide both video and audio on demand." Virgin will test the VOD, then retrofit existing aircraft as appropriate, it said.

Adoption of the Matsushita system also will allow Virgin to introduce on-board gambling, in which owner Richard Branson has indicated an interest.

In close competition with the Hughes and Matsushita systems is BE Aerospace's Multimedia Digital Distribution System. This is a follow-up to its BE2000M that is a distributed non-interactive system. However, the BE2000M is fully upgradable to the MDDS "without changing anything," said VP-Sales Andre de Greef.

Testing of the MDDS on British Airways 747-400s, which was supposed to have been completed some time ago, was still in progress at this writing, suggesting difficulties.

The Network Connection Inc. is another company that has an lIFE system flying, although not on a commercial airliner. The TNCi AirView system is flying on the U.S. Air Force's Speckled Trout, a KC-135 flying testbed, and on a corporate 727 operated by Allegis, a South Africa-based luxury charter service.

AirView was short-listed as one of two final competitors in a competition for Swissair but lost out to Interactive Flight Technologies, according to Del Maners, VP-sales and marketing for transportation and entertainment. He added that the company is in final negotiations with other European airlines.

The system going into Swissair will offer VOD with up to 60 feature-length films to choose from, as well as video games and gambling, according to IFT. The Pentium-based systems are scheduled to be installed late this year. IFT said it also has signed agreements with Debonair in the LI.K., and Oasis, a Spanish charter operator.

With interactive IFE systems essentially being computer processors, virtually any software package can be installed, simply by creating the program-more or less.

The newly introduced Sony TransCom system uses Microsoft Windows 95 as the client and Windows NT as the server, allowing airlines to select from "literally thousands of software programs available," Sony said. The Sony system also has been developed to mil-spec, with hermetically sealed hard-disk drives to ensure rugged reliability.

Sony said its system will be ready for first deliveries in March, 1998. Airlines will be able to buy it outright or lease it with Sony retaining responsibility for maintenance and upgrading.

One of the key players in on-board gaming is Memphis, Tenn.based Interactive Entertainment Ltd., a joint venture between Sky Games International and Harrah's Entertainment. Formed in January, 1995, IEL was created to provide not only the technological development but also the marketing and revenue management.

It is the revenue management that is critical to the technological aspect of inflight gaming, requiring a system that provides real-time accounting and reliable record keeping.

Gordon Stevenson, IEL MD, said the new gaming capability will provide entertainment to passengers, "but just as important, [it] provides airlines with a way to pay for the interactive-entertainment systems that they are building into today's modern, high-tech aircraft." Still, the airlines apparently are reluctant to jump on the gambling bandwagon, citing concerns about reliability and passenger acceptance. In addition, the U.S. government has banned gambling software on aircraft to and from its territory.

David Bowers, Matsushita marketing manager-U.K., said the company is teamed with IEL for equipment to go on Singapore Airlines, launch customer for the IEL gambling software. However, SIA has not yet started putting the software on its aircraft.

Reliability is the key factor. "For gaming, you have to have all the specifics in place," Bowers said. "You have to be able to download very quickly if there is a power interruption, because you have to know what the status of the game was when the power interrupted. You have to be able to store everything accurately about the credit-card transactions that took place and then be able to hand that data over to the management company, whether it is IEL or whoever. You don't want some lawsuit coming back at you with the passenger saying he won $5,000 when he only won $500."

Once SIA does decide to install the IEL gambling software package, however, "it's only a matter of integrating the software into the [Matsushita] 2000E," he said.

One of the biggest players in the software industry is InterGames Ltd., a provider of both gaming and amusement type games, according to Chairman Russ Werdin. He noted that InterGame was the first company to develop the software for in-flight gambling and while gambling will be possible, "it is not just a matter of having a game going [in the aircraft]. You have a lot of transaction processing going on; you have to be able to restart a person's game in the event the system goes down. What if a person has a royal flush and the system goes down? You would not have a happy camper. You're operating the real thing up there. Even though it is a limited stakes situation, it is the real thing."

Along with gambling, InterGames provides puzzle games, board games, card games and Tetris-type games, "and we are also developing trivia games," Werdin said.

With an industry that is growing into the billions of dollars, the fact that a large number of companies are starting to offer some or all of the parts that make up interactive in-flight entertainment is not surprising.

Taiwan-based Industrial Technology Research Institute is offering a "broadcast only video" system late this year but is planning to have a VOD system available for delivery in 1998 and an even more advanced video and air-to-ground communications system in 1999.

In-Flight Phone, of Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., will be offering live television to airline passengers via satellite-delivered programming. Continental Airlines will be the launch customer for this service beginning next summer. Currently, it offers FlightLink, an air-to-ground communication system with a wide range of capabilities ranging from datalink for laptop computers to fax services.

London-based Skyphone, a consortium of British Telecom, Singapore Telecom and Telenor SA, recently announced a decision by Malaysia Airlines to use BT Airline Interactive Services along with Skyphone's passenger voice and fax services. The systems will run on the airline's Matsushita 2000E hardware to provide a variety of in-flight services.

One of the latest companies to join the industry is Mitsubishi, which is offering a fully interactive IFE system, including audio and video on demand in up to five languages.

Copyright Penton Publishing Nov 1996

1996 UMI Company; All Rights Reserved. Only fair use, as provided by the United States copyright law, is permitted. UMI Company makes no warranty regarding the accuracy, completeness or timelines of the Publications or the records they contain, or any warranty, express or implied, including any warranty of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose, and shall not be liable for damages of any kind or lost profits or other claims related to them or their use.