Last Updated Mar 10, 2009 11:43 AM EDT
Inflight entertainment (IFE) these days is dominated by two giants: Thales and Panasonic. These two companies outfit the vast majority of all aircraft that have IFE, and their systems have become more and more complex to serve the customer need. Now there's Lumexis. Filled with many IFE industry veterans, Lumexis has created a far simpler product that has the potential to become a serious competitor in the space.
Basic Setup A normal system you'd find onboard today has servers with the content, switches, and zone boxes under each row of seats to feed content to the screens. (You know you've been stuck with that box at your feet before.) The Lumexis system simply has servers (1 required for every 132 seats) that send data back and forth via the fiber optic cables directly to each seat. There is a power source required for every 15 seats, but that lies out-of-sight of the passengers. This means that there's a lot less weight onboard, about half an existing system, and that's good for fuel burn. On an A320 with 156 seats, it weights less than 500 pounds in total.
It also means that a lot more has to happen within the screen's unit since there is nothing between the server and the unit to deal with all the data. That seems to have led to some heat issues in testing, but those have since been fixed.
The system is an open system, so anyone can design software for it or the entire interface for that matter. The flexibility will be welcome for many airlines who can use only what's been offered to them by the manufacturers.
Screens The screens themselves are excellent little pieces of hardware. The test aircraft that's flying with US Airways right now actually has a previous generation screen, but the new ones weigh only 2.2 pounds each. They are 8.9 inches with a 16:9 aspect ratio. And yes, they are capable of easily streaming HD content. I watched a little piece of a Discovery Channel HD video and it was impressive.
The control unit that flight attendants need to use actually uses the exact same screen as every other seat, so no additional spare are required solely for that one screen.
Content Updates Updating content can be a time consuming piece of work on existing systems, but it's actually very simple with Lumexis. All the content is put on a hard drive which can be slipped into a content loader. There's one on each plane. Within a few minutes, the content is uploaded, but you leave the disk on the plane until an update comes. That way there's backup in case the content gets corrupted in the system for some reason.
Reliability Right now, it's tough to know how reliable the system will be. It's simplicity means that it's less prone to problems, but very few tests inflight have been performed to see how it works in the real world. Tests in the lab have been promising so far. There is redundancy in all systems in case there's a problem with a single unit with the one exception of the power supply. If a power supply goes out, then there is no backup supply to turn those 15 units back on. To replace the power supply, it will probably require an overnight stay, so it could go an entire day without working if it goes out early on. Of course, we'll see in reality how reliable the supply is after it's been in service for awhile. (Note: The system on the US Airways test aircraft is an older setup and doesn't have all the same redundancy that a production system would have.)
Cost Costs are always a big question for the airlines, and while we didn't talk specifics, Lumexis says this system is much less expensive than what you'll currently find on the market.
Installation and Support Lumexis is taking a very hands-off approach to installations by contracting with outsiders to perform them. In fact, the company has only 12 employees right now and is not planning to grow significantly since much will be outsourced. We all know that outsourcing rarely works as well as planned, at least initially. So it will be interesting to see how early installations go and if the units are able to get the service they need in a timely manner. Most service can be done by the airline itself by switching out parts, but we'll see what that means practically when it's actually in use. I have no doubt that Panasonic and Thales will use this as a big selling point for their systems until Lumexis can prove itself.
Outlook This lighter, cheaper inflight entertainment system can truly become a major competitor if it works as advertised. The early test with US Airways is quite promising because it shows that they actually have gone beyond concept and into a fully functional environment. My guess is that eventually some other long haul airline will adopt the system, and after the bugs are worked out, it will end up being very successful. The combination of simplicity with lower weight and lower cost is too powerful to ignore.