History of IFE Systems: From analog to digital – a start with difficulties
Aug 21, 2019
The first digital in-flight entertainment system was provided to an airline in 1996 when Alitalia debuted a system installed by a Las Vegas company called Interactive Flight Technologies (IFT). “IFT promised airlines a revolutionary product—an interactive system that would generate revenue by allowing passengers to choose a pay-per-view movie or to gamble at their seats. At the whim of a passenger, a movie could be stopped or started, forwarded or reversed,” reported USA Today [February 16, 2003].
“’We were ahead of our time,’ [IFT founder Yuri] Itkis [said]. ‘We were the pioneers, and we started to teach this idea to the airlines.’”
IFT – first to provide interactive video-on-demand to an entire aircraft
In 1997, IFT was the first to install an interactive video-on-demand IFE system to an entire aircraft in all seating classes. But in its press release, the company put the principal emphasis on its being “the first-ever provider of inflight gambling following the first flight of a Swissair MD-11 aircraft featuring Interactive Flight Technologies’ Inflight Entertainment Network (IFEN).”
It was not until the second paragraph of the release that the company said, “The Swissair launch also establishes IFT as the first to provide interactive video-on-demand to an entire aircraft—the system will be offered in all three seating classes.” But while IFT celebrated its Swissair installation, its first customer, Alitalia, was expressing dissatisfaction.
“Alitalia agreed to pay [US] $2.7 million for the hardware components for five IFT entertainment systems,” said the report in USA Today. “An average of three to five computer processing units under passenger seats had to be replaced after each flight, [Alitalia project manager Alfredo] Gennari said…’Everything was terrible about the system, and we were very upset about it.’”
According to John White, the IFT system “was extremely heavy and used an inordinate amount of power. IFT offered very large video screens with a lot of capability. The systems were tremendous power draws that created a lot of heat.”
In June 1997, Qantas engineers spent a number of weeks evaluating the system and concluded, on the basis of hard disc failure data, to reject the system. Plagued by difficulties with its system, IFT announced that it was leaving IFE and investing in a chain of dry-cleaning establishments—prompting jokes that investors expecting riches from gaming revenues had been” taken to the cleaners.”
The Swissair crash and its consequences
IFT’s interest was not principally in offering digital IFE, but in installing a passenger-facing system that would support interactive gaming, which many thought would be a means to pay for the entire IFE system and still return a profit. But it turned out that it was the airline that was gambling by installing IFT’s system. On September 2, 1998, Swissair 111 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 229 people onboard.
“Less than two months after the crash, Flight 111’s destruction prompted Swissair to disconnect IFT systems on its planes,” according to the USA Today report. “A year after the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned their use on MD-11s … After the crash, the FAA said the IFT systems’ design and installation were unsafe.”
Just two weeks before the crash, The New York Times on August 19, 1998, described the airlines’ dilemma regarding IFE at that time: “Virtually all of the world’s top airlines now offer sophisticated systems that feature a video screen at every seat and a choice of as many as 21 movies plus computer games, shopping and even gambling. But the systems are expensive to install—as much as [US] $4.5 million a plane—and notoriously undependable.
Digital IFE systems still unreliable
“Only a few years ago,” said The Times, “passengers trying to while away long hours in the air were lucky to be able to see a single movie and listen to some scratchy music. Now, 80 percent of the electronics on a new wide-body jet are in the passenger cabin, not the cockpit, and there are more lines of code in the entertainment software than in the programs flying the plane.”
Such systems placed the equivalent of a personal computer under every seat, networked to a central computer using a complex data network. “As many office workers know,” said The Times, “such networks are [in 1998] still fairly unreliable. At 35,000 feet, the vibration, heat and lack of humidity in an aircraft make the environment even more hostile to electronic equipment of all types.”
“The industry tempted people with things that have been a little more difficult to get up and running on airplanes than they anticipated,” an executive of BE Aerospace told The New York Times in 1998. After purchasing Airvision, BE spent three years and perhaps as much as [US] $155 million, according to estimates by The Times, before abandoning the effort in the fall of 1997. Northwest Airlines had similar issues with its IFE supplier, Hughes-Avicom, and United Airlines had sued its IFE supplier GEC-Marconi in 1996 over delivery issues on the IFE system for United’s B777.
“The biggest problem with those early systems,” wrote The New York Times in 1998, “was that they worked only 90 percent of the time…Singapore Airlines, which prides itself on being at the cutting edge of in-flight entertainment, says that its systems now [in 1998] function 99 percent of the time. But the carrier’s maintenance crews spend an additional 35 hours a week on each of its 56 wide-body planes meticulously checking to make sure that every feature of the entertainment system is working properly at every seat.”
“My engineering colleagues told me that if they charged us [the IFE department] the cost I would be in shock,” said Dr. Yeoh Teng Kwong, Singapore Airlines’ manager of inflight entertainment, who was bullish on the prospect of revenue generation from pay-per-view movies and bristled at the suggestion that content owners might have a say in how content would be charged.
Expensive and complex installations
The period between 1993 and 1998 was a most difficult one for IFE. The New York Times reported in 1998 that airlines expected to spend US$6 billion in the five years following “to equip 4,800 aircraft with a generation of systems that will deliver what vendors first promised five years ago: audio and video on demand, an interactive system that enables passengers to start, stop, rewind and fast-forward any one of scores of films and TV programs at will.” But the industry was struggling to perfect the systems needed.
Perhaps naively, airlines often believed that the increased costs of providing all of those characteristics could be offset by revenues from pay-per-view movies, shopping and gaming. But these business models proved to be even less reliable than the IFE systems. And when problems associated with complex IFE systems began to impact aircraft deliveries—in 1998, Boeing executive Frederick C. Mitchell said that the biggest obstacle holding up production of the wide-body 777 was the IFE system—Boeing and Airbus moved to control which systems could be installed on their aircraft during assembly, and which had to be retrofitted after the fact.
Executives from Rockwell Collins, Matsushita Avionics, and Sony Trans Com all told The New York Times that “they had learned from their mistakes and that the new systems would deliver all the bells and whistles first promised five years ago but with unrivaled reliability.” But all of these issues discouraged investment in the challenges associated with perfecting personal IFE, and some companies with particularly deep pockets chose to reconsider product liabilities in IFE.
Sony Trans Com, which spent four years developing its seatback IFE system before debuting it on South African Airways 747s, sold to Rockwell Collins—a move that some said was as a result of the IFE system being implicated in the Swissair crash and concerns over corporate liability. And eventually Rockwell Collins itself retrenched in large part from the IFE space to focus on single-aisle aircraft, and in 2019 was purchased by digEcor—a company that entered IFE with portable media players.
Next week I will continue this blog series with the following topic:
History of IFE Systems: The challenge to provide movies