The Aircraft Interior and Leading Edge Tech: The Inside Scoopby John Persinos | April 8, 2018

Futuristic Aircraft Interior with Passenger
Thales and Honeywell are partnering to integrate Thales’ aircraft cabin interior network and Honeywell’s Inmarsat Global Xpress ka-band solution to offer four-times the current cabin connectivity bandwidth. (Photo courtesy of Honeywell)

The aircraft interiors market is in the throes of change. We explain the consequences for the MRO field.

For the present and future of the aircraft interior, turn to Silicon Valley. The crux of change lies with Wi-Fi, a capability that aircraft mechanics must learn to master.

Inflight Wi-Fi is demanded by more and more passengers, and there are a host of suppliers vying to dominate the space. The pervasiveness of Wi-Fi is forever changing the airplane interior, opening up new possibilities for a wide range of aircraft interior products.

Revenue projections are bold. The London School of Economics foresees an Internet-enabled aircraft interiors market of $130 billion by 2035, with airlines earning as much as $30 billion from offering the service. But which companies are likely to get the lion’s share of profits from these aircraft interior products?

We spoke with Dave Davis, former CEO of Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE), one of the key competitors in supplying aircraft cabin interiors. Davis is now managing partner of In Motion Holdings, a firm dedicated to investment in the satellite business. He also consults on connectivity.

Davis gave us his views on what it will take to win the Wi-Fi race and what winning will mean for the airplane interior, aircraft interior products, aviation interiors, aircraft cabin interiors, and the aircraft interiors market.

Davis believes in a future of ubiquitous inflight Wi-Fi, a belief supported by the rapid pace of growth the sector enjoys now.

“If you look at third party estimates, it’s 20%-30% annual growth in network connected aircraft,” Davis said. “There are about 6,500 connected aircraft in the world right now, but the majority of those are in North America: United, American, Delta and Southwest Airlines. A bit more than 75% of North American carriers have some form of inflight connectivity, but in rest of the world it’s only about 12%. So there are huge opportunities, largely outside of the U.S., for this market to continue to grow.”

Davis said that both airlines and their passengers now expect connectivity to become as common place on planes as the seats themselves, even if that means that seats will change, particularly losing their seat-back screens.

“More and more passengers and more and more carriers are going to have access to some form of inflight connectivity,” he said.

Another trend taking hold in the U.S. and internationally is a demand for more bandwidth, more speed, and more capability. People want to do things on the airplane similar to what they can do at home. Chief among them is streaming Netflix or similar video services.

Some carriers may also see higher bandwidth capacity as an opportunity to be rid of seat-back entertainment, moving towards a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) streaming entertainment model.

American Airlines, for example, has no seat-back screens on the new 737 MAX, which will fly longer flights. The airline offers ViaSat’s high-speed Wi-Fi instead, which also powers JetBlue’s Fly-Fi inflight connectivity. ViaSat has sufficient capacity for passengers to support video streaming.

American’s decision is an aeronautics necessity that’s molding the face of aircraft cabin interiors.

The added weight of Inflight Entertainment (IFE) on the seats would negatively impact the range on the 737 MAX. But it’s also cost-cutting because IFE equipment is expensive. BYOD benefits passengers because their electronic devices will continue to evolve at a more rapid pace than IFE can, given aircraft certification requirements.

“I think that seat-back IFE is expensive and heavy, so if there is a way to offer IFE without that hardware, I’m sure airlines are looking for it,” Davis said. “In BYOD, they see a solution. There are some impediments to that. You can’t get early window Hollywood movies on your handheld device, but I would say there are some subset of airlines that would rather have high-speed Internet than bulky equipment on the plane.”

Aircraft mechanics are increasingly taking courses geared toward wireless IFE and Internet connectivity, making them technologists as well as wrench turners.

Sports and the Aircraft Interior

A major catalyst for big change in the aircraft interior market is sports. That’s right, sports.

As airline passengers clamor for an airplane interior that offers the latest sports games, other features and functions have followed. Aircraft cabin interiors have never been the same, as a wave of innovative aircraft interior products floods the market to slake the thirst of sports-crazed passengers.

Until the advent of satellite television, it was impossible to watch live sports programming on board an international aircraft. Today, according to IMG Senior Vice president Richard Wise, airlines and global inflight entertainment providers have finally cracked that last frontier.

IMG, originally known as the International Management Group, is a global sports and talent management company headquartered in New York City. Wise explained:

“You could watch live sports domestically, but not internationally. We decided to fill that void with our dedicated channel – Sports24 – purpose built for the inflight and cruise markets. Live is what everyone wants in sports.”

Thales Senior Vice President-Sales Mike Moeller agreed, adding the importance of live sports is fairly simple. “It is what drives people to swipe their credit card to watch TV on an aircraft,” he said. “Yes, there are news events and other programming with immediacy but driving the revenue is sports. Its value is undeniable.”

GEE sees sports programming as part of airline efforts to provide a relevant and engaging passenger experience. “It has a certain degree of timeliness,” said Melissa Pauléat, director of GEE’s marketing and communications. “Sport is a form of entertainment that has the ability to captivate a wide variety of people and cultural backgrounds. Beyond other forms of entertainment, sports has the ability to create allegiances.”

For JetBlue Director Product Development Jamie Perry, the provision of live sports is really about the way people consume media today. The airplane interior, she said, is starting to resemble a sports bar.

“This is broader than just sports in the air,” Perry said. “Fewer and fewer people are watching at the time scheduled by networks. They are watching when it is convenient for them. The one exception is sports, which is very time critical. About 99% of sports events are watched live versus the time shifting that occurs with other types of programming. Sports is also a critical driver of pay television and passengers are very keen to enjoy their favorite beverages while watching sports in the air, especially NFL football and the FIFA World Cup.”

Offering live television on board has its roots in the work Melbourne, Florida-based Harris Corp. did on Air Force One, according to Thales’ Moeller. Earlier this year, Thales acquired LiveTV, founded by former Harris employees in the 1990s and later acquired by JetBlue. It has grown beyond JetBlue exclusivity and is now offered on Frontier and United airlines.

For the future, Thales is working on an IPTV solution over the Internet which is designed to address yet another challenge — providing more sports within aircraft cabin interiors to meet the insatiable demand for sports programming.

Thales and Honeywell are partnering to integrate Thales’ aircraft cabin interior network and Honeywell’s Inmarsat Global Xpress ka-band solution to offer four-times the current cabin connectivity bandwidth. Aircraft interior products are increasingly incorporating these solutions.

The Wireless Aircraft Cabin Interior

The imperative of offering live sports on an aircraft means mechanics must be well-trained in the intricacies of satellite uplinks and Wi-F technology. The shift to live sports availability is hastening the transition from the wired aircraft cabin interior to Wi-Fi aviation interiors.

The risks of building infrastructure, the costs of waiting for scale, and the business dynamics of commercial aviation will lead to inevitable consolidation among existing suppliers, with fewer companies offering the requisite aircraft interior products.

On the supplier side, there’s still an unsettled situation. There are six or seven providers around the world vying for the available real estate, which is getting their equipment installed on aircraft.

The ultimate winners will be companies with a large installed base of aircraft and the companies that have the balance sheet to fund growth. That funding of growth takes different forms. One of them is development of new antenna technology, as well as actually investing in satellites.

The other is the ability to fund the losses in certain regions. Airline operators are paying for bandwidth in parts of the world where they don’t have that many customers yet, but they need to have the network inflight, to service even one airplane. The equation amounts to having the install base, with the balance sheet to compete in the long run.

Vendors also are cooperating today to deliver integrated biometrics in the inflight entertainment system, tying together a camera embedded in the screen with connectivity to various other platforms that can act on the data. Connectivity relies on ground stations, a network of satellites, and a service provider that allows a properly equipped jet to use the networks. Providers are competing to provide faster data speeds, greater reliability, smaller hardware requirements, more global coverage, and increased ranges appropriate for a wide variety of aircraft. The MRO field is racing to catch up with these changes to the aircraft interior. The ultimate solution will likely involve enhanced satellite connectivity. Equipping aircraft would become a requirement, regardless of whether Wi-Fi becomes the great differentiator for airlines. One exciting new technology is Visible Light Communications, now called Li-Fi. Recent tests show that Li-Fi’s visible light spectrum is 10,000 times larger than the radio waves which routers use to send Wi-Fi signals.

Information from a LED bulb is recorded in pulses, much like information from an infrared TV remote control. However, the capacity of Li-Fi is one million bits per second (bps), unlike a remote control which can only carry 1,000 bps.

Unlike regular Wi-Fi signals, Li-Fi doesn’t rely on radio waves which could potentially interfere with the communications and security systems of other vessels.

Major aircraft carriers have been testing the potential of Li-Fi for in-flight entertainment systems using the overhead bulb already installed in most commercial airlines. Airlines are interested because Li-Fi also saves weight.

The upshot: The aircraft interior is becoming a flying office, a flying home, and a flying entertainment center. Being unavailable en route is no longer a valid excuse. The aircraft interior of today is equipped to provide levels of in-flight connectivity once considered impractical.

Passengers can now perform everything from simple email exchanges to high-bandwidth computational tasks. Aviation mechanics are rolling with these changes, evolving from “grease monkeys” to high-tech digital experts.