Lufthansa will let you watch in-flight movies on your own tablet

Two airline passengers use the BoardConnect service from Lufthansa Systems on their own wireless devices during a flight. Credit: Lufthansa Systems

The design team at Lufthansa Systems, a subsidiary of Lufthansa Airlines, wasn't looking to revolutionize in-flight entertainment for the world's airline passengers. It was simply looking for some new products and sources of revenue for its business.

That's when the idea of potential improvements in on-board entertainment systems first came up, Nobert Mueller, a senior vice president with Lufthansa Systems told CITEworld. Those hard-wired in-flight entertainment systems in seatbacks and ceilings on narrow body commercial passenger jets have been around for years, but they can be limiting for passengers because they often don't work and they can offer poor sight angles.

"We looked at all kinds of aircraft," Mueller said. "A lot of U.S. airlines had invested in seatback screens, and many European airlines used ceiling-mounted screens, which are not that much use because they don't give a real personal experience to passengers."

An idea was hatched.

"We saw this … and thought how can we solve that and make the product more attractive for passengers and also make some money?"

After some brainstorming, the idea for a new product became clear -- to develop a revolutionary on-board server that would deliver material like in-flight movies, music, electronic publications, and more to each passenger using the tablets, laptops and smartphones the passengers were already carrying aboard.

"Instead of modifying seats and building screens into seats, we simply use the passengers' own personal electronic devices" to provide the content, Mueller said. "It was more about creating a new market than about solving a problem."

The result was BoardConnect, a small server that can be easily installed inside a jet's electronics bay and linked to several wireless access points mounted in the aircraft's ceiling. The access points transmit customized entertainment that fits passenger requests. The system is particularly aimed at narrow body jets, where it's harder to package on-board entertainment systems that are easily visible to all passengers. An adequate number of access points is used for each plane type to ensure that all passengers can use the service at the same time.

BoardConnect can also be used by passengers to order food and drinks from their seats, as well as by cabin crew members to provide flight information and other travel details to passengers. BoardConnect also gives airlines the opportunity to send custom content, including targeted advertisements and in-flight offers to purchase goods.

The BoardConnect systems are built by Lufthansa Systems and run on Microsoft Windows Server 2008. They also run Microsoft's PlayReady DRM application which encrypts content so passengers can stream and watch it, but can't save it.

On the client side, passengers have to download an app onto their devices before boarding a plane so they can use the service. The app has been available for iOS and Android for about a year, and a new Windows 8 version has just been added. Passengers carrying Kindle Fire devices can also use BoardConnect using the Android app.

Each airline can install the BoardConnect systems in their own jets in less than a day. The installation is much easier than the larger, more complicated built-in systems which could in the past take up to a week or so to install in a plane. Airline can now delete those built-in entertainment systems on narrow body jets, which reduces maintenance and saving lots of aircraft weight and fuel due to the demise of some 150 or more on-board screens, said Mueller.

Lufthansa Systems began the project about three years ago with prototypes and BoardConnect is now being used by Virgin Australia Airlines, which started with an installation on one jet in early 2013, said Mueller. Virgin Australia is now using it in about 70 planes. Lufthansa Airlines, which has run some trials using BoardConnect, will be installing it in some of its medium-range jets starting in the summer of 2014. El Al Airlines is also expected to begin installing and using the systems later this year, according to Mueller. Talks are continuing with other airlines as well.

So far, plans don't call for Internet availability to be a part of BoardConnect due to technical issues with getting adequate bandwidth from satellite providers for such a service, he said. "Right now it was built with the idea of in-flight entertainment, but we are not Internet providers." Those integrations could come in the future, he said.

In some sections of long-distance aircraft, primarily in first class, the built-in entertainment systems will likely continue to exist, said Mueller. Eventually, though, BoardConnect could lead to the disappearance of on-board, in-flight entertainment in the future, much like the demise of eight-track players and neighborhood video stores.

"My personal expectation is it will go away," he said. "It will not take long until we have an adequate penetration of smartphones. I'm expecting that it's not going to be long before in-plane screens no longer remain."

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