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We've got all the right pieces, it's time to put them in all the right places...

At Aircraft Interiors Expo 2015 in Hamburg last month, the topic on everyone’s lips was ‘What’s the future of IFEC?’ For me, it was a pretty simple conundrum to unravel… unless that is, you are an airline. 

To start, let’s look at this question from a passenger’s point of view. We happily wander around with more connectivity and processing power sitting snugly in our pocket than was used to launch men to the moon. We enjoy the ability to stream data and access services like never before using devices that are slim, powerful and, to some, sexy. So logic might suggest it’s not unreasonable to think that if you can get all of this on good old planet Earth, the future of IFEC in the air will be an identical experience. Won’t it?

Well the good news is it will be, but the bad news is it won’t be just yet. And I do believe some IFEC manufacturers are running before they can walk in terms of their vision of the future. From a hardware and software perspective it’s all there: tablets, in-seat units, transponders, receivers, hard drive IFEC controllers, and in cabin wi-fi – it all exists and is ready to roll. And it can be obtained from any of the multi-nationals right the way through to some fiercely keen independents desperate to have a slice of the very big pie that is IFEC.

If it all exists, why aren’t we getting it? Because of three basic barriers.

Firstly, our planet is two-thirds water and there are no land-based transmitters in the middle of the ocean, so we need satellites – lots of satellites. Air passenger numbers to the USA last year were just under the 200 million mark, and if they all wanted to watch Season 7 of Mad Men at the same time then that's a lot of data to be streamed by a multitude of satellites. There simply aren’t enough satellites to provide this amount of data transfer in hard to reach places.

Secondly, film studios and content providers are very, very nervous about early window content piracy. If you take your own device on board who’s to say you won’t abscond with a nice fresh copy of the latest release? However, they will happily supply this content (at a price) to in-seat units knowing there’s minimal risk of piracy. The motion picture industry needs to relax a little, or be reassured that the airline industry is making sure third-party data is secure and protected, to overcome this hurdle.

Lastly, as they say in comedy circles, it’s all a matter of timing. Take a look at what technology you have in your pocket or your carry-on luggage. Now take a look at what’s installed on the latest A380, A350 or B787 – it already feels out of date in comparison. Conservative estimates (from talking to the industry at the show) indicate that the in-seat technology is at least two years old before it is even used by a passenger.

For airlines, when is the right time to take an aircraft out of circulation for a re-fit? Never! C checks are planned, but work to get certification for the very latest piece of IFEC to be installed has to begin many years in advance (more than likely before the technology is even in production) and from what I can see, no-one has got the required ‘rhythm’ quite right. Installing proven, out-of-date kit that is certified and ready to go but a few years out of sync with planet Earth is all we can manage right now. But why should it be that way?

To sum up and to bring us back to the headline, the hardware and software all exists, but it is the cycle of sales, certification, content compliance and installation that is causing this horrific lag. Whilst I am not working behind the scenes at Panasonic, Thales, Lufthansa Technik, Gogo or BAE, it may be that they’re working along the lines I suggest, but the regulators should be brought on board immediately (not treated like the enemy), along with the seat manufacturers, to work in a synchronous manner that is just not apparent right now. Lovely neat little business units or silos all working in splendid isolation do not make for a truly ‘current’ IFEC solution.

I wonder how Apple would have fared and what sort of products they would have produced if no one talked to each other in Cupertino, USA. 

Steve Jobs said the most amazing thing about innovation: “Live in the future and bring the present towards you”. Most in IFEC are doing a pretty good job of living in the here and now, and a little bit in the future, but no one is really bringing the present with them.

James Acton is co-founder and director of The Brand Nursery, an independent branding agency based in Leeds, UK. It has worked alongside Transvania (part of Air France/KLM group), Air Europe and recently undertook a complete livery re-design of Jet2.


21 May 2015


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