August 2012

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PALM SPRINGS -- In-flight connectivity provider Row 44 announced a new tool for airlines to generate ancillary revenue by providing free access to a sponsored IFE portal to passengers with laptops and other devices.

The portal, known as a "walled-garden", will provide access to a selected set of services like retail shopping, live television viewing, games, and information on the destination city, even allowing passenger to book ground-based service and events prior to landing.

Row 44 has created a coalition of partners along with SkyMall to offer in-flight catalog access, JiWire to offer advertising inside the portal, BeDynamic providing destination event booking and Pinger offering a premium for unlimited SMS messaging while in-flight.

Lastly, but perhaps most notably, the Home Shopping Network (HSN) has signed on as well. At first glace the channel selection may not seem that important, but through the Ku-band satellite link up Row 44 will offer a live streaming simulcast of the HSN channel with options to purchase items directly inside the free portal.

Whether your inclination towards HSN leans one way or another, try think about it this way: The demonstration of live streaming video through a walled portal to a laptop could pave the way for passengers to bring their own integrated IFE onboard. Bringing your iPhone, laptop, DVD player, etc already is BYOIFE, but imagine that the device you bring on board allows access to a portal designed to optimize your user experience, not to mention the potential for regulating potentially expensive bandwidth.

Row 44 says the new portal will be flying by the 1st of November. The company declined to say which airline would be the launch customer, however Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines are the only current operators for the service.

Which brings me to my next thought: Electronic Flight Bags. EFBs are purely a pilot tool and are divided into three classes. A Class 1 EFB is an external device that is brought aboard must be stowed at certain phases of flight. A Class 2 EFB is similar to a Class 1 except it can be used during all phases of flight. A Class 3 EFB is a fully integrated platform that offers two way systems communication and is permanently installed aboard an aircraft as an LRU.

So what does this have to do with IFE? I'm taking some creative liberties on classification, but if we follow these similar conventions then:
  • Class 1 IFE is your unconnected laptop, iPod, iPhone, that is able to make a direct connection to the internet, but in an unguided way.
  • Class 2 IFE is the device you bring on board that is able to interface with the walled garden or internet at-large to provide access to free and premium content by way of a connected environment.
  • Class 3 IFE is your fully integrated seat-back unit.
What Row 44 has done here is give life to the Class 2 IFE, while at the same time relieving the burden of maintenance and installation of individual seat-back LRUs, while removing the cumbersome need to download new media to the aircraft. Pardon the pun, but could cloud computing be the answer to a new airline business model?

Late Monday afternoon, Mary Kirby and I were given an exclusive look at Panasonic's new integrated IFE seat design called the Fusion. The change could represent a major shift in how airlines leverage IFE for economy class cabins.

The new slim seat design, which was covered with a blanket when Mary and I first arrived at Panasonic's still under construction stand, was shown to us installed on the Weber 5751 economy class seat. Panasonic has gone to great lengths to create a new integrated interface between the IFE screen and the seatback, with new design that introduces a clearer new capacitive LCD screen.

The touchscreen LCD will come in seven or nine inch options, and a USB power port will be a standard feature. Panasonic envisions a fully connected IFE seat-back interface that accomodates in-flight access to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

While Panasonic says that they have yet to sign a customer for the new seat and IFE system, the company says it is working closely with airframers like Bombardier to offer the Fusion system as part of the CSeries cabin. Panasonic is already supplying the cabin mangement system for the CSeries.

"We look at CSeries as a great opportunity," says Paul Margis, CEO of Panasonic Avionics.

Panasonic says that the Fusion system is designed for both narrowbody and widebody applications. Each system weighs about 1.5 lbs, compared to the current system which weighs about twice that.

The 50% weight cut could yield significant long-term fuel burn savings when spread across aircraft economy cabins like that of Qatar Airways 777-300ER which seats 293 or the Emirates A380 which seats 399.

Panasonic hopes to have the Fusion flying by November of 2010.
CObizFirst_560.jpgPALM SPRINGS -- Continental Airlines is set to introduce its first newly configured Boeing 777-200ER with its BusinessFirst flat-bed seat by the end of October.

Brian Roland, engineering project manager for Continental Airlines, says 777 Ship 13 (N78013), which is currently being modfied, will be the first to feature the new 50-seat business class cabin.

Each BusinessFirst seat will feature a Panasonic designed eXport jack, allowing passengers to play content stored on Apple iPods and iPhones on the seat back screen.

Panasonic announced today at the World Airline Entertainment Association Conference and Exposition that it is partnering with Apple accessory maker Griffin to offer the eXport in-flight video cable in retail stores. Previously, the Panasonic cable was only available to passengers as property of the airlines.

In addition to Continental, Panasonic has secured about a dozen customers for the eXport jack system, including Singapore Airlines, Avianca, Swiss International Airlines and United Airlines.

The seat, which is made by B/E Aerospace, features a full 180-degree, 6'6" (198.1 cm) lie-flat seat, as well as Panasonic IFE system with hand controller and US compatible power plug.

The airline also plans to feature introduce the flat-bed seat on its Boeing 787 aircraft, along with its existing 767-400ER, 767-200 and 757-200 fleets.

The installation of the new seats on the 777-200ER fleet is expected to be completed by August 2011, with the existing fleet a year later.

Continental operates a fleet of 20 777s and holds orders for an additional eight.

Photo Credit Continental Airlines (top)

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