Taking care of business aloft
Contented passengers on long flights need more than good catering. They need reliable cabin communications and entertainment systems.
By Peter Berendsen
ATP/CFII. Boeing 747, MD11
Rockwell Collins Venue inflight entertainment system offers intuitive touchscreen monitors to control the on-demand audio and video content.
The longest nonstop passenger flights ever undertaken took several days to complete. In the 1930s, huge airships crossed the North Atlantic, connecting Europe and North America in style and comfort until the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst NJ and the looming war ended this era.
During the long journey, passengers were in total isolation from the ground except for an occasional wireless telegram. They kept themselves entertained by enjoying close-up views of the landscape and the ocean. The airship company provided an oceanliner-like setting with elegant meals in a restaurant, private cabins and, yes, a smoking lounge.
The Hindenburg was lifted by explosive hydrogen gas, but to keep passengers happy, the airship had a room with an airtight door and slightly higher air pressure, so that no gas could enter. The lounge steward was the only person on board with matches, and only he was allowed to light cigars and cigarettes for the smoking pleasures of the guests.
In the jet age, flights became much shorter but there were no more restaurants, lounges or cabins. Passengers were mostly restricted to their seats, as there was little room to walk about. To occupy passengers and keep them quiet, Pan Am started to show movies on its Boeing 747s in the 1970s, and installed actual theater-style 16-mm projectors.
Tasty dining would have helped, but airline food used to be regulated by IATA in order to eliminate competition between carriers. It has not recovered since.
Aviation has made great efforts to entertain passengers almost since the beginning, if only as a distraction from the inherent risk of flight. As we are not allowed to smoke in this era of health and happiness—nor to look at attractively dressed stewardesses serving creative cocktails—the focus today is on virtual happiness, electronics and connectivity.
The concept of a happy passenger on a long flight requires us to understand what some call the "master of time" concept. This means that each passenger should be able to arrange his or her time on board as he or she pleases.
Never overlook the importance of good inflight catering. Especially on long flights tasty, healthy and well balanced meals are essential for the wellbeing of passengers and crew.
Individual needs vary a lot—some passengers wish to eat, some sleep, work, talk, communicate or watch movies, while some just look out the window and want to be left alone. While staff may work on e-mails, the CEO may try to catch some well earned rest before the next meeting. Inflight cabin systems need to be able to address all these different needs at the same time.
After the movies, electronic passenger entertainment came to airline installations. Entertainment systems began to offer several continously repeating channels on video recorders, and, later on, server-hosted on-demand movies. The weight of these systems, which included arrays of video screens and recorders with their power supplies, as well as their power consumption, limited these installations to airliners and the largest executive jets.
On modern inflight entertainment (IFE) systems, the entertainment part—movies, music, geographical world map for airplane position—is all loaded onto an onboard server. It takes quite a bit of work to keep the content updated, to select and have the latest music and movies available, maybe even some games.
Experience shows that entertainment systems tend to freeze up, and a crewmember should be knowledgeable about how to reset and reboot the whole system. In airline installations this rebooting can keep a cabin crew quite busy, so clearly it may be a more taxing issue aboard a business aircraft.
A new and promising idea is to provide docking stations for smartphones at each seat, and stream individual content to a high-resolution display and quality earphones. It is essential and a legal requirement, however, that any safety-related announcements by the crew still get through to the passenger.
IFE goes HD
This mechanically steered satellite tracking antenna has a large bandwidth but can only be installed on large business jets and airliners. Smaller phased-array antennas are also available.
Rockwell Collins is a leading supplier of IFE systems and has been able to bring down their weight and power usage so that they can be installed in executive jets.
Rockwell Collins calls its business aircraft high-definition (HD) IFE system Venue and claims more than 140 installations. Venue has a flexible architecture, with a solution for the full range of business aircraft from light jets to BBJs and ACJs combined with small size, low weight and little in the way of power and cabling requirements.
Within the past year, Rockwell Collins has introduced "intuitive" touchscreen HD monitors and cabin controls, a touch-enabled version of the Airshow moving map, and simultaneous audio/video on-demand capability for Venue.
An personal 10.6-in HD touchscreen monitor allows passengers to control cabin functions easily and to view entertainment with simple gestures from their seat. Flight attendants have a similar touchscreen to manage cabin entertainment and environmental settings.
And, instead of simple light switches, a hopefully easy-to-use 4-in personal programmable switch panel incorporates a touch-enabled liquid crystal display (LCD) screen to select lights and audio/video content.
Venue's new audio/video on demand (AVOD) system allows content to be loaded and accessed by multiple displays within the cabin. This means that several passengers can view the same video or listen to the same song at different times and at their own pace, independent of other passengers.
The Venue AVOD application can also support selection and playback of video content on Venue bulkhead displays. New Dassault Falcon 7Xs and 900LXs will come with this system, which Dassault Falcon is marketing under the trademark FalconCabin HD+.