Since the time the Apple iPad was announced there has been speculation regarding its adaptation into an in-flight entertainment (IFE) device.
Now, having used the iPad, including as an in-flight entertainment device on multiple flights, over the past two weeks and a half weeks, an announcement by BlueBox Avionics that they will be launching an iPad based in-flight entertainment solution, with Jetstar Airways (a subsidiary of Qantas) leaves me stumped.
On the surface the Apple iPad seems like an in-flight entertainment solution for airlines. The iPad interface is easy to use, the screen is bright, the device features solid state media storage, wifi is at the core of the device … and best of all the iPad as that “ooo ahhhh” factor.
Once we shave away the “ooo ahhh” factor, the iPad is in fact a very poor choice for airlines to utilize as an in-flight entertainment device.
As an individual iPad user I think the device is fantastic, but once I step outside the mindset of a travelling gadget geek I am able to see a long list of flaws that should cause airlines to look past the glitz of the iPad and focus on long term viability and a sustained performance life.
The iPad’s fatal flaws as an airline in-flight entertain solution are as follows
1) Battery Life – While the iPad’s battery life is impressive for a single user, clocking at around 9 hours of video watching with the brightness at maximum (Apple states battery is 10hrs, in my experience it runs closer to 9 hours). Nine hours of battery is fine for a single passenger, but from an airline point of view this battery life is not sufficient for a few reasons.
Airline in-flight entertainment must last the duration of a flight and the return flights in an environment where no power outlets may be available. Once an iPad’s power has been depleted its recharge time requires a few hours to bring it back to 100% battery power. With airlines only making money when planes are flying, not when they are on the ground they certainly won’t spend the time on the ground to recharge their iPads.
As Jetstar Airways, the first airline to deploy the BlueBox iPad IFE product, only offers in-seat power outlets in 38 of the 303 seats on board its Airbus A330-200 aircraft, it may need to purchase iPads in pairs for longer flights, such as Sydney to Tokyo (a flight that would push the iPad to its battery life limits)
These issues put the battery limitations at the top of reasons why airlines should not seek out the iPad as an IFE solution.
2) Lack of Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) Support – The iPad is not intended for commercial usage, such as an in-flight entertainment device. While the iPad has commercial potential, Apple will not be providing OEM support to third party IFE distributors. The lack of OEM support means that in order for the iPad to be fully customized for an airline’s individual IFE needs, including the simplest tasks such as loading content, the device must be hacked. One a provider hacks the iPad Apple will no longer provide any service for the device. Since the device is not created by the distributor, such as the digEcor and IMS portable IFE devices, costs for service and development skyrocket.
3) Long Term Viability – As much as I love Apple products, I know the life span of most Apple devices is rather short. A new iPad is likely to appear within a year to 16 months and since Apple will not be directly involved in the development and deployment of the iPad as an IFE device, costs for upgrading will be substantial.
Looking at Jetstar Airways’ Airbus A330-200 fleet of seven aircraft, the initial users of the Bluebox iPad IFE product, the estimated hardware costs alone are approximately AUS$1,113,348 for 1,893 units. While see costs may be similar to the current costs of the Airvod portable IFE devices currently used by Jetstar, Airvod produces its own devices and offers full OEM support, which substantially increases its cost effectiveness and long term viability.
4) Content – In-flight entertainment needs content, there is no question about this. One concern which has already been expressed by BlueBox is that sourcing content for the iPad is challenging. As the iPad runs on an Apple proprietary operating system content cannot be loaded as easily as dumping an MP4 file onto the desktop.
Bluebox plans to stream data wirelessly through a proprietary IFE system. The creation of this IFE data stream means aircraft need to be fitted with Bluebox’s wireless network, which adds costs, increases aircraft weight and potentially adds to aircraft maintenance costs…and the data streams in such away that once again providers face not having any OEM support from Apple…lets not forget that using the wifi for streaming data significantly decreases the battery life of the iPad, which leads to further battery lifespan issues.
5) Durability – The iPad, while well build, it not incredibly durable. Here is the true test of an airline portable IFE product, can you place the iPad in the hands of a five year old and expect to get it back without having it damaged from falling on the floor or a toy truck driven across it. The iPad high gloss screen is fairly easy to scratch up and cannot survive multiple four-foot drops to the ground. The iPad screen can easily develop hairline cracks if dropped on the corners of the device.
The repair of an iPad, since there is no OEM support, is costly and for every day an iPad is out of service for repair the airline is losing money on the device.
6) Design – While the iPad is easy to hold and use, it is not natively designed to stand up on its own which makes the device inherently unsuitable for an airline IFE device. Most users of the iPad do not hold it in their hand; they place the iPad down in a stand. If an airline must provide a durable stand to the iPad it once again increases their costs, while they overlook purpose built mobile IFE solutions that rival the iPad in this realm … if not far exceeding the iPad in this realm.
I can go on a bit more, but you all get the point.
While I love the iPad and I think for my personal user use the iPad is great for flights, from an airline point of view, the iPad is extremely costly and has far to many limitations. If I was an airline looking at 10hrs of battery from the iPad vs 20hrs of battery from the digEcor L series, that is quite comparable to the iPad in many aspects … I think the digEcor L series would win because it purpose built, and its strengths are all the iPad’s weaknesses.
Below is a photo my iPad side by side with the IMS Archos 705. While the screen is much smaller on the IMS Archos 705, its design and construction make it far more suitable for daily multi-user usage by an airline.
Flickr image credits (in order of appearance):