Two years of working from home has changed the way many of us use technology. Inflight entertainment companies are trying to reflect such trends as they recover from the pandemic and airlines start to spend again on delivering movies and onboard Wi-Fi to passengers.
AeroTime spoke to two of the major companies in the market, Inmarsat and Panasonic, at the Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg, which ran from June 14-16, 2022.
“When airlines don’t fly, you feel the heat. Now we’re rebuilding,” William Huot-Marchand, SVP of inflight connectivity (IFC) at satellite company Inmarsat, told AeroTime at the trade fair. “The ramp-up is huge, every month, more and more aircraft are getting back into the skies. So now the revenues are coming as well.”
Andy Masson, VP product and portfolio management at electronics company Panasonic Avionics, described the last couple of years as a “dry spell” for the industry.
Panasonic tried to help out its airline customers by providing forgiveness on support, content and connectivity contracts with the airlines. “We don’t want our customers to suffer and not be able to pay the bills,” he said. Things are picking up now though, he said. “What we’re finding now is COVID is starting to be accepted a bit more. And as that happens, the sales are starting to go up again, the interest in our products is going up again.”
Both the Inmarsat and Panasonic managers said that far from people wanting a break from their devices, the trend was for more connections on board aircraft.
“We’ve had many enquiries from airlines to bring connectivity on board,” Inmarsat’s Huot-Marchand said. “Passengers have their smartphone, their tablet and they expect to be connected. It’s a trend that I don’t think is going to slow down.”
According to Inmarsat’s Passenger Confidence Tracker, 41% of 10,000 respondents believed inflight Wi-Fi had further increased in importance post-pandemic.
Over at Panasonic, Masson said the pandemic meant people had got used to working with multiple devices and become more tech savvy.
“Habits have changed – people are using multiple screens,” he told AeroTime. “They’ve been sat at home with two monitors, also in front of an iPad and an iPhone, plus the TV on with the kids. And what used to be information overload has become the norm.”
Masson said Panasonic took stock during the pandemic, identifying sustainability and technology as key drivers for its new IFE system. Reducing weight is a key trend, because less weight means lower fuel burn, which means fewer emissions.
Panasonic launched its new inflight entertainment system, dubbed Astrova, at the AIX trade fair, teaming up with seat maker Recaro and then unveiling Qatar Airways as the launch customer for its Boeing 777X fleet a few hours later.
Panasonic’s Astrova IFE seat-back system. Credit: Panasonic Avionics
The seat-back system features a 4K OLED screen, which is just 7mm thick, with a thinner frame. Due to the reduced frame, the 13.3” screen therefore fits into the same space as a 12” screen previously did.
“If you pay $1,000 to sit in the back of an aeroplane, you want the experience to be better than your experience at home,” Masson said. “The design brief I gave my team was ‘Design me something that looks better than an iPad’. I want passengers to come on the aeroplane and go ‘Wow, I don’t want to get my iPad out of my bag’.”
With a nod to sustainability, the weight has been reduced by 30% compared to previous systems and it features a removable bar for charging ports and controls, meaning the system can be easily updated by removing just that one part if technology standards change over the next few years and move on from USB-C connectors, for example.
“Should a new technology come out, should Bluetooth 5.1 be replaced by Bluetooth 6, 7 or 8, should the USB C become a USB D or F, then we can update our product without having to change the whole thing out. It changes the game for our customers,” Masson said.
Using a single seat box, the system can provide 67-Watt charging power to three screens at once, eliminating the need for a separate AC power supply for devices at seats and thus further reducing weight.
“Companies really want to think about their carbon footprint. So, we wanted to meet that commitment by taking the weight out of the system,” Masson said.
We are delighted to announce a new partnership with @recaro_as to integrate our new Astrova, by Panasonic Avionics, in-flight entertainment seat-end solution into their premium seats. To find out more, visit: https://t.co/PpPk2rsGTg#Recaro #aviation #IFEC #AIX2022 pic.twitter.com/6tWyMNXhSk— Panasonic Avionics (@PanasonicAero) June 14, 2022
More devices, more data
Inmarsat provides the broadband connectivity that allows people to go online while flying. But it’s also concerned with helping to recreate that at-home experience at 40,000 feet.
“Airlines want to please their passengers.” Huot-Marchand said. “They want to provide them with an experience that is as close to what they have at home.”
Huot-Marchand said it’s not connecting multiple devices that’s the issue, more providing data at higher speeds to recreate the same experience that people are used to on the ground.
“The challenge of the industry is to provide the capacity for more data,” he said.
Inmarsat is confident of meeting that challenge thanks to its Global Xpress (GX) network of 14 satellites in geostationary orbit 35,786km (22,236 miles) above the Earth.
“We have a fully-funded roadmap of satellite launches, with six more huge satellites to be launched over the next two to three years,” Huot-Marchand explained. “They will provide better coverage, and more data for everyone. Very importantly, it’s very reliable and provides fast speeds for passengers.”
Inmarsat stand at AIX 2022 in Hamburg. Credit: Victoria Bryan
European aircraft manufacturer Airbus is also picking up on the trend to keep smartphones connected onboard, predicting that by 2027 almost 30,000 aircraft will be equipped with connectivity.
At the AIX, Airbus announced the launch of Airspace Link HBCplus, a satellite connectivity solution that will be offered as a line-fit catalog option and also for retrofit on all Airbus programs. Inmarsat’s GX broadband solution was named as the first managed service provider for HBCplus.
“We are bringing the pipe for all the data,” is how Huot-Marchand described it.
Crucially it will be offered as seller-furnished equipment, meaning airlines can request it directly from the Airbus catalog when they order aircraft, rather than having to source an equipment provider themselves.
“Airbus is taking a very different approach,” Huot-Marchand said. “It will come smoothly, it will be better integrated, the aircraft can be delivered faster.”
We’re honoured to have been selected as the first Managed Service Provider for the ground-breaking new @Airbus Airspace Link HBCplus connectivity catalogue solution, providing a streamlined way for airlines to purchase our #GXAviation #IFC. More: https://t.co/5PQ08u1n3A pic.twitter.com/dEHwo6KG92— Inmarsat (@InmarsatGlobal) June 14, 2022
While on-board connectivity is common across North America on domestic and short flights, it’s not yet taken off in Europe on short-haul in a big way.
However, Huot-Marchand thinks that could change, with Inmarsat already providing connectivity for IAG airlines and Aegean in Europe thanks to the European Aviation Network, which combines satellite with an LTE-based ground network.
“I think it’s changing. We have plenty of enquiries. It’s dependent on the duration of the flight, but more and more people want to be connected even on short flights.”