George Harrison once remarked that Hamburg was like an apprenticeship for The Beatles – a place where they learnt how to play in front of people. And so it proved; by the time the band returned for their sixth and final visit in 1966, they were a worldwide phenomenon. When I left the recent Aircraft Interiors exhibition (AIX) in this very same city, I did wonder to myself how many of the new providers of wireless in-flight entertainment (W-IFE) that have seemingly cropped up overnight had fine-tuned their act enough to earn a second trip this time next year.
I must admit, the likes of Immfly, Northern Avionics, Sky FE, Pax Life, and Flow IFE, were all names that were new to me on arrival in the expanded IFE zone and I can only assume they were new to many airlines in attendance, too. When you throw into the mix the presence of in-flight connectivity vendors, providers of more traditional embedded systems, those offering portable solutions and then the arguably more established disruptors like Media inMotion (formerly AeroFi) and MI Airline (now AirFi), its little wonder that confusion abounds when it comes to choosing an IFE system.
So who are the new kids on the block?
Let’s start our retrospective journey at stand 2D15 with Immfly which says it aims to “provide passengers with entertainment and destination deals content via personal electronic devices”. Founded in 2013, detailed information on the Barcelona-based start-up is hard to come by. However, we know that since December of last year, Iberia Express has been incorporating Immfly technology on its aircraft. In addition to an additional as yet unnamed airline customer, I understand that Vueling is also on the firm’s books. Focusing on the short-haul and mid-haul markets, Immfly’s W-IFE solution is currently more of an intra-cabin network which passengers can use to read digital publications, view destination information and make reservations through third-party partnerships. For now, movies are not yet offered but this will apparently change in future.
Close to Immfly at stand 2C20 was Northern Avionics, a company known more for providing bespoke solutions to specific customers in the VIP sector. The firm was showing off its new WAvES (Wireless Avionics Entertainment System), which has been designed for helicopters, business jets and now, commercial airliners. A company representative told me that they’d had a lot of interest in the system since the Aircraft Interiors Middle East (AIME) show this February and I certainly saw ample evidence of inquisitive airline representatives during my limited time on the stand.
Just round the corner on 2E30B we found Turkish Technic, which has partnered with software company, HAVELSAN, to create the Sky FE W-IFE system. No prizes for guessing that the launch customer for Sky FE is Turkish Airlines. After undergoing tests in October 2014, a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for installation of the system on Boeing 737-800 aircraft (Turkish has 68 of these according to Planespotters) is expected to be issued by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) imminently. With the help of Google Translate, the additional information I have managed to find indicates the joint venture will apply for certification of Airbus models and business jets in the future. Interestingly, Sky FE is also offered as a wired seatback offering which was on display at AIX.
According to the handy routeplanner exhibitor directory I picked up on day one, stand 4E20 was home to a company called Pacific Inflight. It turns out the correct name for the company is PaxLife which is the software remnant of the Pacific Avionics (formerly Flight Focus) business acquired by Rockwell Collins in March 2015. That would certainly explain the presence of banner stands endorsing the PAVES IFE system as Rockwell is PaxLife’s preferred supplier of the hardware on which its new W-IFE proposition runs. Central to this offering is the PaxLife app which seeks to bring data-mined passenger information to a network of airlines before, during and after the flight. I am led to believe at least six airlines have joined the network already and that we’ll hear more concrete news in the not too distant future.
Last but not least on this Magical Mystery Tour (I had to get another Beatles reference in before summing up) was Flow IFE, a British firm located at stand 2C20 and fronted by Leon Codrington, once of Global Eagle Entertainment. Each server in the “Flow Cost” W-IFE system can serve 30 passengers and in the narrow-body market, airlines would have one situated at each end of the cabin. Flow IFE also has its eye on premium offerings in business class on wide-bodies. The company showcased Flow VR, a prototype virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD) that would offer a personal immersive entertainment experience not available with PEDs or seatback systems. As well as allowing passengers to explore their destination prior to arrival, a key benefit of the system is its ability to reduce air sickness by introducing a false horizon that mimics the movement of the aircraft.
Flow IFE is, of course, not the first company looking at the use of HMDs for IFE. In January, Qantas launched a trial entertainment service that sees passengers in select A380 first class cabins given the Samsung Gear VR headset. At AIX, Honeywell and OnAir were also showing off various HMDs, while Gogo recently released a whitepaper on the implications of the technology for IFE. It seems pretty clear then that VR will likely play an important role in entertaining passengers and also, improving comfort as Dr. Betty Mohler’s presentation at the Passenger Experience Conference on the eve of AIX showed. Valour Consultancy’s upcoming report on W-IFE will provide analysis of this trend and many others, in addition to forecasts on the future direction of the market. For airlines, this will represent an invaluable tool to keep track of this fast-moving sector and to compare the solutions of companies active within it.