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Airborne killer apps

Airborne killer apps

Airlines are turning to technology to boost their competitive edge. Paperless flight decks and wifi access are just some of the projects keeping their IT teams busy.

Flight manuals on board and reminders to turn off mobile phones while on flight would soon be passe. Airlines in New Zealand and throughout the region are simultaneously rolling out systems and technologies that would make contemporary flight experiences - both for crews and passengers - so unlike what they would have encountered even just six months ago.

Wireless, broadband connectivity are taking to the skies, with "live TV" also set for takeoff in 2006.

Air New Zealand has just launched its upgraded Boeing 747-400s, featuring new in-flight systems. The airline's first Boeing 777 arrived last October, with more to follow in 2006. Some of Boeing's more advanced 787s have also been ordered for 2007 onwards.

Singapore Airlines is not missing out. It will be the first airline to receive Airbus Industrie's A380 'superjumbo' and has ordered 10 of them costing NZ$8.6 billion. The first will run the Sydney-Singapore-London 'Kangaroo' route later this year. The airline will also upgrade more of its 747s to feature Boeing's Connexion inflight wifi based-services, which promises to bring high-speed internet and 'live' TV.

Trendsetters

The latest SITA Airlines IT Trends Survey notes that while airlines in Europe are engaged in price competition, their counterparts in the Asia-Pacific region are fighting over a different battle - the race for technological innovation.

Airlines in this region have ambitious plans to deploy in-flight communication technology, such as internet access, email and mobile telephony.

Average airline spend on telecommunications and IT by Asia-Pacific airlines remains pegged at 2 per cent of revenues for the second year running, SITA notes, however this translates into higher IT budgets in real terms, as revenues rebound with passenger numbers exhibiting near double-digit growth over 2004.

"Airlines in this region have become extremely tech savvy and are using it as part of sophisticated inflight services to tempt premium customers. With competition for business travellers never fiercer, innovation is an essential ingredient to developing a competitive edge," reports SITA Group president Peter Buecking.

Business analysts Frost & Sullivan also notes similar trends in a recent report, saying technologies such as audio-video-connectivity on demand will eventually "become the killer application" for inflight entertainment. By working with IT vendors and content suppliers, airlines can reduce costs while offering new scope for non-seat revenue generation.

"They also minimise the airline's downside by providing increased avenues for cost reduction through outsourcing, risk sharing, reduced capital and operating costs," states Binny Prabhaka, Frost & Sullivan's global program manager, commercial aerospace and defence.

Customer comforts

Such moves are confirmed by Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines which have ordered these technologies for new and existing craft. Air New Zealand is using Boeing planes and Boeing technology. Though opting for the European Airbus 380, Singapore Airlines is also adopting Boeing technology.

Sally Lythgo, inflight entertainment content and design manager, says Air New Zealand's new 777s and refitted 747s will feature individual digital audio and video-on-demand for every customer, with active noise cancellation for business premier customers.

"The system is also provisioned for all future functionalities such as connectivity. It is an open architecture that offers an interface for various third party content and support," she says.

The inflight system is known as eTES (enhanced total entertainment system) and is produced by Rockwell Collins of the USA. Singapore Airlines and Emirates airlines use a similar Panasonic system.

Lythgo says such technologies depend on the customers' willingness to pay for phone calls and wifi; and the ability of satellites to offer the broadband. The Inmartsat Swift 64 will offer broadband to the region from the end of 2005.

She says customers can control their in-flight experience with fast forward, rewind and play and pause functionality while watching movies.

The new systems will also offer information on the airline, like joining its frequent flyer program, and details of meals and ground passenger services.

Air New Zealand's point of difference to rival systems will be its high New Zealand content among the 50 movies, 90 short features, 50 CDs and 18 compiled audio programs.

Lythgo says a major issue in installing the system was specifying everything from scratch. These included the GUI (graphical user interface) design, customer and brand experience, functionality and content specification, communications plan and subsequent delivery.

There were also bandwidth challenges and reliability issues as it is the first airline to install an eTES on a Boeing 747-400.

"The specific problem areas that needed to be addressed upfront were reliability and performance of the system," she explains. "We overcame this by doing a soft launch before we began selling the product to market.

We used this time to track and measure products, to talk openly with our customers and understand their expectations and needs and to determine exactly what we needed to do to ensure the problems were fixed before guaranteeing the product by sector," Lythgo continues.

In-flight, customers will be able to use their own mobile phones, send and receive data over GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), and have laptop access to the internet and corporate VPNS (intranets). They will, of course, need various wireless or USB port connections and there will be charges based on roaming connection agreements.

With text messages at 50 cents a pop, such services might not seem cheap, but the airlines must recover their investment somehow.

Indeed, the rival Connexion system at Singapore costs US$15 for unlimited email and internet access. Singapore Airlines launched this service in March 2005 on the New Zealand-London route, progressively rolling it out across other services.

Using Intel Centrino mobile technology, Connexion by Boeing promises similar wifi serves as those on the ground, as well as live television.

"These new internet services open up a whole new world of entertainment, information and business options for our customers. Clearly, we are not stopping there and will continue to add new applications and further enhance the system," says Sak Hin Chin, Singapore Airlines general manager in New Zealand.

In June, Singapore Airlines also launched four 'live' TV channels - for viewing from laptops - a service that will be available from every individual seat-back screen from 2006.

Cockpit controls

Technology is also transforming lives for the crew as well. Air New Zealand is to install the Boeing Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) on its 777s and 787s, the first delivery of which was just several weeks ago, on its first 777.

"As a company, we are always keen to find cost effective technological solutions, and the EFB will support us to achieve our goal of a paperless flight deck," says Air New Zealand general manager operations, Capt David Morgan.

The EFB contains all the documentation and forms that pilots carry - aero-nautical maps and charts, manuals and fault reporting and operations, minimum equipment lists and logbooks - in digital format, and puts them at crew's fingertips.

EFB also includes an onboard performance tool that allows the pilot to instantly calculate the ideal speed and engine setting for an aircraft, in any weather, on any runway and any payload. Such calculations, says Boeing, could increase the payload of a 777 taking off from a wet runway by as much as 9000 kilogrammes.

In addition, the EFB includes an airport moving map application, which combines high-fidelity geo-referenced airport taxi charts and precise navigational signals to show flight crews exactly where they are on the surface of an airport. It also gives flight crews a viewer for cabin surveillance systems, helping meet new crew and anticipated regulatory requirements.

Paperless cockpit

The new Airbus 380 'superjumbo' will have a network systems server as the heart of its paperless cockpit, eliminating bulky chart manuals and charts traditionally carried by pilots. The network server stores data and offers document management and will be accessible from two 11-inch LCDs, each controlled by its own keyboard and cursor device mounted in the foldable table in front of each pilot.

Power-by-wire flight controls actuators are used for the first time in civil service, acting as ultimate flight control back-ups.

While initial publicity has stressed the A380's space and comfort, allowing areas for relaxation and duty free shops, only Virgin Atlantic has confirmed such facilities.

Similar facilities have been proposed for other large aircraft but economic realities meant a focus on more seats to reduce ticket costs. With 555 passengers, the A380 provides a 35 per cent increase over the 747-400 in standard three-class configuration, along with a near 50 per cent larger cabin volume - meaning much more space per passenger.

Singapore Airlines says its A380s will have only 480 passengers, giving its passengers even more room, but does not provide further details.

Sak Hin Chin says the A380 offers "intriguing opportunities" to further boost its Business and Raffles class services, with the craft's roominess also "putting the romance back into air travel".

"The use of the latest technology (e.g. lighting, temperature control, contour seats) would help us improve our services greatly and we want to be able to tap on these new technologies as much as we can. With the A380, what we do must be

precedent setting, but at the same time we have to bear in mind the economic viability. We cannot price ourselves out of the market, but must remain competitive and very relevant to our customers," he says.

Finally, the A380 is also forcing investment from airports. Some plan terminal reconfigurations to facilitate loading and unloading from the A380s' double-decker design.

Auckland International Airport has announced a $27 million upgrade due for completion by the end of 2006, saying if it cannot accommodate the A380, its status would be downgraded to that of a branch line to Sydney.

Bed and broadband

Wireless welcomes travellers in the most unexpected places.

Down on the ground, wireless broadband is spreading its way into some unlikely places. Boutique hotels are leading the way, with some offering IP-based Skype telephony as well as free broadband. Wifi makes for happy campers too.

Gone are the days when camping meant roughing it, or a bed & breakfast offered little more than room and board.

Now, customers demand all the best business services plus the comforts of home.

KEA Campers is rolling out new campervans for summer featuring on-board computers, wifi-based internet, DVD players and CD burners for digital photo-processing.

Executive Director Rudi Fuhrman says installing the services followed customer requests, particularly from overseas guests who also want to read their own newspapers and keep connected with home.

"We are accommodation on wheels. We are a four to five star operator. Every hotel has internet and holidaymakers travel with laptops, so it important for us to have an internet connection," he explains.

Thus, Kea Campers has been installing its own hardware, including a 40GB hard drive, with microchip slots and USB cables, for campers to download their photos and perform other tasks. It also lets head office keep in touch with the campers.

Since the digital camper vans arrived in April, Fuhrman claims an incredible response, even though the company has yet to market them. "It has also triggered the message from campground owners that they want to get wireless too for their other guests. People want to check their newspapers, rather than have to go into cyber-cafes or buy an old foreign newspaper."

KEA Campers sees itself as a technology innovator and is now looking at installing Navman-based satellite navigation.

The Classic Villa, a newly-opened boutique hotel in central Christchurch, has rolled out free ADSL broadband and wifi, as well as offering guests the use of a Skype phone.

Owner Costa Kerdemelidis says business guests are enjoying the free broadband. Many are using the hotel Skype phone, which allows them to make overseas toll calls for a few cents a minute - what Skype charges him - avoiding "excessive hotel call charges."

Brisbane-based David Ewing of Retail Foods says that as a business commuter, he needs technology like wifi at hotels. "That's exactly why I chose this place. I saw free wireless was part of the service offering and you cannot get that in the big hotels."

The Classic Villa also features an interactive 3D virtual reality website, allowing would be guests to tour the 13 rooms. Online booking is also possible through the site along with listings through the Wotif and Ezybed booking agencies.

In the two months the villa has been open, Kerdemelidis says some 80 per cent of bookings are online, with the websites speeding the time it takes for a hotel to get clientele, instead of having to wait a year or more for guidebooks to come out.

The nearby Off The Square in Christchurch is a larger boutique hotel that pioneered ADSL broadband when it opened two years ago. A year ago, it made its broadband free because the billing process was too messy for customers, most of whom expect to get free broadband. Then, it offered free wifi four months later.

Owner Timothy Nicholls also opened a 24-hour cafe providing broadband and wifi access. "Guests can now work in the cafe, or in their rooms. They don't have to ask for access to a business lounge. We never made much money selling the broadband so we give it as a service. Our business is accommodation, not IT," he adds.

His next project? Installing a Skype phone.

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