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:
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.
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.