Bjorn’s Corner: Modern IFE

By Bjorn Fehrm

By Bjorn Fehrm

04 December 2015, ©. Leeham Co: During the last two weeks I have been busy explaining how a mid-life long range aircraft is refurbished. The articles have been about how to prepare 10 year old Boeing 777-200ER and Airbus A340-300 for their second half of life.

One of the things that must be done is updating the part of the aircraft that meets the customer, the cabin. Most passengers don’t know much about the aircraft they are flying, but they can tell you if the seats were comfortable, if there was enough leg space and if the movies on the entertainment system were any good.

This means that if the cabin is brought up to a modern standard with lie-flat business seats, refreshed interior surfaces and textiles, and if there is a personal IFE unit with good content, the passenger will not reflect over that he flies an old aircraft.

Such refreshes cost a lot of money. Without changing all items in a 300 seat cabin, one is easily at between $5m-$10m for material and installation. One of the problems when wishing to keep existing seats, for economic reasons, is that it is virtually impossible to implement in-seat IFE to an existing seat. Luckily there are other solutions.

Classical IFE solutions

A modern in-seat IFE system from the big vendors Panasonic or Thales use in-seat units or clients which very much resemble a tablet. They have tablet’s processor and operating environment with a touch screen like the tablet. Often they have added a solid state disk. They use Android as the operating system, which works as the end node in a so called client-server network, spanning some 300 clients. All this is being served by a central Linux server in the equipment bay over a wire or optical network laid in the cabin floor.

The in-seat IFE clients’ functionality is impeccable; these perform all the usual content services with movies, music, games, etc, with short reaction times. The solid state disk is to cache large high-definition movies that would clog the network should 200-300 passengers all ask for a HD movie after dinner. Android as operating system provides access to a robust browser, should in-flight Internet be provided, and games and apps are in abundance.

There are only three faults with these systems:

  1. They cost an arm and leg. Often the per-seat cost for an installed system is the same as the long range economy seat they are placed in. We are talking thousands of dollars per passenger and around $3m-$5m on an aircraft level.
  2. They require proprietary installations. The seat must be qualified with the IFE client included and for slim-line economy seats it is a hard job to get all components into the seat-back. These must then withstand the seats crash test criteria. The wire of fibre-based network is also expensive and time-consuming to install.
  3. It’s heavy, weighing about a tonne in all for a system. Each extra tonne of empty weight in a 300 seat airliners increases fuel consumption with about 0.4%.

Wi-Fi based solutions

Luckily there are alternatives to ripping out every seat in an Analog Video On Demand (AVOD) equipped aircraft (the one with shared screens in the roof and bad picture quality) and putting in new seats with integrated IFE. More and more vendors propose Wireless based systems with a portable client based on standard tablets.

This solves the large problem of routing an entertainment network to every seat and to get the IFE client with screen into the seat-back and qualified. Instead, the system uses modern Wi-Fi with access points mounted in the crown of the fuselage and the passenger unit is something most people know how to operate.

Figure 1 show a system from a BAe systems company, IntelliCabin. It has a typical build up and we can use it as an example for a Wireless IFE system.

IFE system

Figure 1. Wireless IFE system from BAe IntelliCabin. Source: IntelliCabin. Click for a larger image.

There is a server in an equipment room in the aircraft that is stashed away in a typical ARINC-style box. This serves tablet-based clients in the cabin via a standard Wi-Fi network.  The network is created with access points placed in the fuselage crown. Any need for cabin crew management of the system is done from a system control tablet which calls up special Web pages or a control app.

The server has standard PC server components but the power-supply takes aircraft style power. It is often Linux based. Server hard disks are often of solid state type to increase their movie serving performance. The disks contain all the content and also downloadable IFE apps for any passengers who want to use their own devices on the network (Bring Your Own Device, BYOD).

The normal way to present the IFE system to the passenger is trough web pages which are created by a web server in the central box. The reason for dedicated apps in addition to the web pages is that a web browser does not have the required content security when playing the movies from the sever. One of the trickiest parts of an IFE system for airliners is the level of content protection of movies and games the content providers require.

Hollywood and other content suppliers have strict rules for the Digital Rights Management (DRM) required for them to let any young content onto the aircraft. Here the DRM of a browser, either on the airlines provided tablet or on a BYOD, is not good enough. Hence a system uses dedicated apps that handle the content playback once one have tapped once choice on the web page.

The provided tablets also have large solid state disks in them. If all 200-300 passengers ask the server to pass them movies at the same time, the Wi-Fi network cannot cope. Therefore the airline will hand out (or rent in economy) the tablets with the hottest movies pre-loaded on the disk. The network can be reserved for Internet traffic (if the aircraft has satellite Internet as shown in the figure) and any supplemental content which is not found on the tablets hard disk.

Cost and weight differences

The cost of enabling a classical seat based IFE system runs in the $3m-$5m including installation. To this is added the seat costs, as it requires all seats to be renewed (existing seats in 10 year old airliners are most of the time not adapted to take in-seat IFE). A network must be laid in the floor, adding to the cost.  And as said, the installed weight of such a system will run up to a metric tonne.

A wireless server plus network can be had for 10% of that cost. To that shall be added the client cost. But as this is based on standard tablets from Apple, Samsung, Microsoft or others, they cost around 5%-10% of what an in-seat client costs. The tablets also weigh around one third of an in-seat client. In total a wireless based system comes in at less than half the weight of the in-seat variant.

Wireless IFE is getting popular in the cabin refit market and one can understand why. They offer a cheap and flexible alternative to a classical solution, especially as the development pace on the client side is brutal and it is easy to update these when need be at a low cost. A total refresh of a set of clients for a 300 seat aircraft would set the airline back with around $100.000.

29 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: Modern IFE

  1. “Therefore the airline will hand out (or rent in economy) the tablets with the hottest movies pre-loaded on the disk.”

    I used to be involved here from the airline side. The cost of the global logistics to support this (and e.g. 16g requirements) quickly used to kill the business case. Luckily most passengers bring their own Phablets / movies / music / games these days. In seat power is more important. Airlines start removing screens as a big cost saving. Crew doing the flight safety instruction again. A simple business case..

    Putting new IFE into existing seats never worked cost wise. Per seatplace the seat itself costed about 10-15% of what the IFE costed (excluding content) making the seat basically an IFE rack.

    We used to bring together IFE and seat manufacturers 15 years ago to solve the seatbox comfort issue. Still ” enjoying” the sharp, big seat boxes today totally amazes me.

    • Hi Keesje,

      the remaining seat boxes around your feet are a disgrace, it should not happen for new aircraft and seat types. I know that Boeing has some slimline seats for the 787 that did not make it to have them in the seat (Qatar’s economy seats being one of them) and Airbus also have seats with boxes for the A350 (Finnair’s economy seats have boxes). This is not acceptable and it is a big part of bad economy reviews on these aircrafts.

      • I know some very innovative solutions that were bandied around the halls of the Lazy B for cabin upgrades, including WiFi. Needless to say, they were squashed. “Today’s systems are flawless! There’s no need to change!” Hubris at it’s finest!

  2. I have noticed that the impact of having more NB on medium haul is the gradual reduction in proper IFE on these sectors. Using the rudimentary tablet systems offered does work but I suspect from my (relatively limited) experience that it will damage the overall flight experience.

    I noted the emphasis on weight implications of a full system and can only conclude that many transatlantic sectors will go down a more stripped out service in the future based upon a321neo lr and the like.

    If the operating costs of these smaller aircraft are considerably less (including capital costs and flexibility issues) and the service level can be reduced, doesn’t this question the importance of medium range WB operation unless there are cargo considerations?

    • Hi Bob,
      we will have to get used to smaller aircraft flying long range missions. Even a CS300 is an aircraft which can fly many transatlantic routes and it per seat economics is not drastically different to a 787 or A350. The WiFi based systems are in their infancy, they will get better, full in-seat IFE will still be the better deal but it is more and more for original OEM fit.

  3. providing simultaneous wireless service to 300++ st(r)eaming video junkies in close proximity is not an easy thing either.

    • That is why pre-loaded movies are on the handed out tablets: It is also a more secure way of spreading content according to Hollywood if done correctly.

      • I’ve yet to see some statement from from Hollywood that actually shows technological understanding.
        They have a grammar problem as the only relational word they know is “mine”.

        • The techonology industry is the one with the problem, they keep confusing stuff that others have invented or have ownership with things you find lying around the street. What used to be called theft is now called disruption

          • The tech people got it. The error is on the legal side introduced via r*ping established law.
            Never were rights on content promoted to the level of “tangible property” rights. A paradigm mismatch. DRM tries to effect this with legal mumbo jumbo. But any overlay can and will be peeled off.
            “Copyright” ( as in privilege to produce copy ) worked due to content and paper being for all purposes conjoined.

  4. BYOD is the future for coach.

    everybody already has their own tablet, laptop or phone anyway.

    most airlines already charge ~$5 for any non-moronic content on the in-seat IFE, so tying in BYOD IFE with $5 low volume internet through the airline’s app seems like a no-brainer to me. especially if you offer the customer the “opportunity” for it to be automatically billed to their CC any time they fly on that airline (one time registration, hassle free IFE forever… for a fee.

    saves the weight of in seat IFE (and the giant underseat boxes destroying what little leg room coach passengers have) increases revenue to the airline, customer doesn’t have to learn a new device to operate it.

  5. Thanks Bjorn.

    The wireless model makes so much sense that I’m wondering whether it’ll become the norm in new build as well as refit?

    So ~1 tonne for a typical modern IFE system in a 300-seater. How much would a system like EK’s new wide screen IFE weigh? (on A380)

  6. Inflight movie and TV offerings are typically garbage. The only thing I enjoy watching on the seatback IFE is the flight tracking map, and on many airlines it’s FREE!

    • Inflight movie and TV offerings are typically garbage.

      That is a globally valid statement independent of it being a terrestrial or airborne offer 😉
      Suprising number of people mandate that they have “their” garbage available everywhere.

  7. Lufthansa Systems has already equipped widebodies (Condor and Virgin Australia) and A321 (Lufthansa) with the WiFi IFE system they pieced together. It works on all regular Win based pc/tablets using MS silverlight and using a native app for Android and iOS. Gogo has a similar option for DL and UA. Drm is ensured and works fine.
    Panasonic with their ex3 and Zodiac with the RAVE system is coming closer to having all content locally, the network is only used to update content on the ground, or to get flifo in flight.

  8. «Therefore the airline will hand out (or rent in economy) the tablets »
    The tablets should have a fully loaded battery then. Difficult task with just 1-2 hours before the next flight. If the passengers plays some fancy games, the battery will be empty after 2 hours. Not acceptable for a long haul flight. So the airline have to hand out some charging cables too. And the airline have to change something on the old seats because every seat needs a power plug or at least a USB plug.

    You can expect a lifetime of at least 5 years for IFE-systems build into the seat. Tablets with heavy use and batteries loaded twice a day will have a lifetime of max. 2 years.

    On a Tablet with a big 128 GB memory it’s possible to save about 10-20 HD movies plus trailer for all movies and series. To stream HD-content to half of the cabin a wireless network with an effective capacity of about 1-2 GBit/s is needed.

    BYOD seems to be more attractive on the first view. But then at least 5-10% of the passengers will ask the cabin crew for technical support “I can’t install the app on my tablet”, “I can’t watch the movie”. And then even more bandwidth on the wireless network is needed.

    • The installation and use of a local power socket for the tablets is a given. It is not complicated in an existing seat triplet or quad.

    • Assuming the 300-seat aircraft, half the pax watching content, and half of that preloaded (I think better than that can be achieved), that’s 75 pax streaming. At 4 Mb/s for 1080i, you need 300 Mb/s of network bandwidth, at 2 Mb/s for 720p, it’s just 150 Mb/s. And I suspect in the airplane environment (and tablet size devices) 720p would be quite all right.

      I have seen this in action on Air Canada’s low-cost Rouge division, flying from Canada to the Caribbean. They rent tablets, or people can use their own. No power outlets. The actual usage rate seems to be well below 50% — and the amount of technical support activity fairly small.

  9. Having broken my teeth flying I hasten to add as a smartly dressed young lad on Avro Lancastrians & Yorks (Both derivatives of the Lancaster) in the early/mid fifties, flying in unpressurised cabins at about six thousand feet with four RR Merlins droning away for five days on one occasion on the Stansted to Singapore route in what can only be described as a box cabin, no night flying then, everyone dressed for the occasion & changing dress daily, we established friendships that have lasted in some cases for generations, we had a lovely time flying.

    No sophisticated IFE then, just card games, convivial company a good book, nobody got pissed and we looked forward in anticipation of spending the night in a dodgy hotel with suspect food and even more suspect beds in remote British colony which was a welcome release from those bloody Merlins.

    Sadly things move on, seemingly the art of articulate conversation is lost, replaced by the lack of close communication by the now constant quest for electronic communication & entertainment at forty thousand feet, not a good thing, whereas the timely demise of the British empire is.

  10. Thanks Bjorn, interesting article.

    How does the lifetime cost differ between BYOD and ‘fixed installation’ IFE? BYOD is somewhat more fragile than fixed installation, so I would like to know if there is a crossover point between the installation and operation costs of the two options.

    (Oh, as a point of order: it is ‘BAE Systems’. ‘BAe’ hasn’t existed for about 15 years!)

    • Hi Steven,

      it’s BAE Systems, thanks. The Wi-Fi life of the clients are shorter then an in-seat client but the costs difference between the two is around 10 times. The in-seat units is a low production, custom build unit whereas the tablets used are built in the millions. Also what is degenerating on the tablets is the battery, it can only take around 1000 re-loads before declining in performance. But batteries can be replaced. While one does not do that on a commercial tablet these are handled by professional MX centers. These can easily replace a battery and bought in large numbers from a battery supplier they are not expensive. I don’t think an in-seat IFE solution can compete on cost with a Wi-Fi solution.

      • A tablet needs to be cleaned, serviced, new content put on. On every flight, everywhere. Say 100 tablets per aircraft. People collecting them after the flight, packing them transporting them off the aircraft, airfield to the service center.

        Checking, cleaning, repairing (if required). Packing them, (in trolleyss?) getting them on board as part of the catering process. Crew distributing them to the right passenger selection.

        All in all $30-50 service costs per tablet per flight, unreasonable?

        I guess you need about 4-6 tablets in the pipeline to have 1 available. The purchasing cost get lost against the logistic costs very quickly.

        Also seat storage should be adjusted. You don’t want 100 1.5 pound flat projectiles going through te cabin during a 16 g accident. It shouldn’t be stolen either better check that too somewhere.

        In the end people start concluding fixing the tablet in the seat in a good place, recharging it and centrally loading content on it isn’t a bad idea..

        I guess it all has to do with gap there between a nice product & end user comfort and airline costs.

        • I’d guess that fixed IFE doesn’t show significant ( as in a magnitude or more ) improved reliability over a mobile tablet.

          Hving to fix inseat stuff is much more disruptive to keeping a timetable than swapping out a “lose” item.

        • If the airline charges for the tablets, the takeup rate will likely not be more than 20-25%, as almost all pax will prefer to use their own devices, and some don’t want any video at all. So for convenience let’s say 60 devices on WB flight (and less in the future).

          Maybe two-three minutes per tablet to hand them out (and collect the credit card payment), less than a minute to collect them, and less than another minute per tablet to take each one, wipe it clean and drop it in a high-speed charging cradle. Recharge takes less than an hour.

          $3M savings for the hypothetical aircraft, plus 0.4% fuel savings — and some incremental revenue from the tablet rentals. The math really does work from the airline perspective — even if I don’t necessarily like it as a passenger.

          • thysi, airline operations and cost proved kind of uncooperative against innovative enthusiasm. You can’t exclude real cost, even if you want to.

            “I’d guess that fixed IFE doesn’t show significant (as in a magnitude or more ) improved reliability over a mobile tablet.”

            Uwe, to find out we would have to put tablets into an aircraft for 8 years continuously, use them 12 hours a day by thousands of users and measure MBTF.

            Often aerospace stuff looks & feels the same as consumer products. But it ain’t the same. Aircraft are dry, electrostatic, bumpy and dusty, the users rude.

            There a reason tables are (sometimes) in First only..

          • “use them 12 hours a day by thousands of users and measure MTBF.”

            I’ve mostly been able to avoid designing for user interacted stuff.
            ( actually some of that has been out of human reach for a decade or two 🙂

            Question is if COTS items can provide for a sufficiently sturdy and reliable product.
            Mobiles and tablets today seem to be replaced by “newer” things long before they loose functionality.
            I’ve seen numbers that for every mobile in use 2..3 are stored in some drawer in perfect working condition ( well, at the time they were stored 🙂

          • Real costs include the IFE system cost and the incremental fuel cost; these are easy to calculate. The labour cost associated with managing tablets is real, too, but somewhat harder to quantify.

            Regarding reliability, one key point is that it’s really easy to replace a tablet if it fails: just hand the customer another one. If the built-in one fails, it’s a major operation (relatively speaking) to swap it out.

  11. As a (usually biz class) travelling member of the public I’d like to say that I want power and internet. Forget most things associated with the IFE (Flightradar24 obviates the need for in flight map), I’ll just use my device myself thanks.

    And since it appears that everyone on the planet older than five has their own device, make internet and power free, spend more on food and forget the rest, and at least you’ll get the next generation flying your airline!

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