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Fiber provider

It takes a certain type of person and a certain type of customer to challenge the market position currently held by Panasonic and Thales in the IFE sector. These two giants of IFE have enjoyed a virtual duopoly when it comes to winning new line-fit aircraft programmes, with both able to produce the necessary approvals from Airbus and Boeing that airlines keen to reduce risk and speed delivery demand.

Left: Lumexis' Doug Cline on board an early flydubai aircraft


Doug Cline, CEO of Lumexis, is quietly confident that 2013 will be the year that sees Lumexis added to the very short list of current line-fit approved IFE suppliers. And Cline, a former US Navy pilot who saw active service during Vietnam, has the steely personality, technical expertise and calm confidence required to see the job through. An avionics and IFE veteran with more than 30 years of experience, Cline is well aware how slow aircraft manufacturers move when it comes to updating their catalogues. However he’s willing to stick his neck out with a potentially market-shattering forecast: “So this year, the big prediction from Doug Cline is that Lumexis’ FTTS will become line offerable from Boeing in the second half of this year for the 737-800 and -900, with initial delivery to be determined by that OEM’s management.”

Although both short-haul aircraft, Cline says long-haul offerability will closely follow: “I think that 2013 will also see us shift beyond narrow-body offerability to establish wide-body line-fit approval too – it will be ‘the year’ for Lumexis, with multiple customer announcements planned.”

Desert bloom

But Lumexis’ first customer for its innovative fibre-optic-based IFE system should not be forgotten. Without its initial vision and belief, Cline and Lumexis would still be years away from such an important breakthrough. Enter Daniel Kerrison, inflight product development & customer experience manager at launch carrier, flydubai: “I think it is quite unusual for a low-cost carrier to offer in-seat video in every seat in the airplane,” he says. “But that’s the benefit of the Lumexis FTTS system being less than half the weight of traditional IFE systems; and around half the cost. It really was the only way we could make a business case to cut the cost of the investment – not only in the hardware, but also the ongoing investment in content, acquisition, and the technical cost to integrate the system, as well as the fuel burn to carry the weight of the system.”

Right: The Lumexis FTTS system onboard flydubai's newest B737

Despite the convincing numbers on paper, it still took a huge leap of faith for flydubai to go with Lumexis, given the potential impact such a decision could have on its aircraft delivery schedules and onboard experience. But Dubai itself has built a reputation for innovation and breathtaking feats of engineering, with the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, an obvious example of its willingness to challenge the status quo and pioneer new technologies. It could be argued that flydubai’s decision to go with Lumexis was very much ‘in character’ for an airline proud to represent the region: “As the launch customer for the Lumexis system, of course we knew there were some risks, but the potential rewards were substantial enough to warrant taking that risk,” says Kerrison. “And it was a calculated risk – we went through comprehensive process of risk mitigation and assessment and we went for it. In keeping with the spirit of Dubai, innovation is at the forefront of everything we do.”

Seat availability

As with any new product – just ask Boeing about the current ‘teething problems’ with the 787 – there were a few initial hiccups, but these were quickly fixed. “Of course, in the first two months back in 2010 the system wasn’t performing as well as it is today, but the team at Lumexis were very quick to get on top of the issues we experienced, and we now have amazing seat availability,” says Kerrison. “I fly on all sorts of airlines, and IFE is notoriously unreliable. However, we’re very pleased with the reliability of the Lumexis system. There are far, far fewer parts and fewer boxes than a traditional IFE system. As the system name states, it’s fibre to the screen, with just a fibre optic cable going from the head end to each seat in the airplane. Fewer parts mean fewer problems. The system also offers complete redundancy – essentially there are two of everything, so if you were to take a pair of scissors and cut a fibre cable on the aircraft, the passenger wouldn’t notice. Similarly, if one of the server units fails, it simply switches to the second server without the customer noticing. We aim for 99.5% seat availability, and we’ve had no difficulty in achieving that since launch.”

Left: FTTS’ triple-redundancy system architecture comes with multiple servers, a dual fibre-optic cable network, and in-seat content storage for ultimate failover 

And it is this reliability that makes Lumexis an attractive addition to the Boeing catalogue, argues Cline: “Both Boeing and Airbus need an extreme sense of confidence in any new vendor,” he says. “They need to know a new supplier is not going to screw up their deliveries, particularly on their narrow bodies where they’re trying to move beyond 35 deliveries a month, up to 42 deliveries a month. Historically IFE has been just a terrible problem for the OEM because when you’re in the catalogue it means not only does everything have to be installed and so forth in time and not slow things down, but then when you come to the end of the production line, you have to turn it on – it has to work. That in itself has been a multi-day process, with the turn on and test for IFE being a major burden for the OEM.”

Hence Lumexis has been working with Boeing via a Technical Services Agreement to prove its reliability and ease of installation: “We actually completed the Phase 1 Technical Services Agreement last year and have moved into the second and final phase,” explains Cline. “Of course, the pace of implementation is entirely up to Boeing, but it is driven by customer request. For some two years now, that has been flydubai, but in the last six months or so, a significant number of well-known, major airlines have been adding their voices, assuring that first, the B737-800/900, and subsequently, Boeing wide-body products will follow, and rapidly, as feasible. Thus, I am completely confident in my prediction that a line fit announcement will occur in 2013H2, but I have no authority to represent the Boeing Company, which will independently determine – in response to carriers' demands – when to cut this into production.”

Should Boeing have any further concerns, it need only study Lumexis’ retrofit record with flydubai: “Historically, a post-delivery installation of an IFE system consumes a couple of weeks of downtime for the aircraft, but we have now got over 20 737-800s installed for flydubai, with each one taking about two and half days to fit out,” notes Cline.

Clearly further customers are now in the pipeline to heap even more pressure on Boeing to give the green light to line fit, but Cline refuses the opportunity to name them at this stage. However, the final comment should probably belong to flydubai, whose initial confidence helped bring FTTS to the market, and now it would seem, to an even wider airline customer base: “The full redundancy that the Lumexis system offers and the simplicity of its architecture with fewer parts, means we’re fortunate to say that the risk we took has paid off,” says flydubai’s Kerrison. “It’s such a great system that the market will demand it eventually.”

Doug Cline was speaking to Anthony James

 

5 January 2013

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