October 5, 2007

Linux-based airline seat-back entertainment system is a winner

Author: Mike Ho

The Linux-based eX2 in-flight entertainment system (IFE) from Panasonic Avionics was the big winner at this year's Avion Awards, sponsored by an IFE trade group. The Best Overall IFE awards went to Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways, all running variants of eX2.

This Red Hat-based system also is installed on Qantas Airways and on Boeing 777s operated by Delta and Continental. eX2, the newest version of Panasonic's in-flight entertainment systems, offers not the canned radio stations of yesteryear, but rather audio and video on demand, games, and even online books, depending on the carrier.

With all three top vote-getters running Panasonic Avionics IFEs, one could argue that it was really Panasonic that ran away with the awards. Headquartered in southern California, Panasonic Avionics says its systems are installed on more than 3,000 aircraft worldwide.

"We're very proud of our customers," says Paul Margis, CEO of Panasonic Avionics. "Each one has a very unique system."

Although all of the winners use the same core eX2 software and share similar hardware platforms, Margis says, the user interfaces are heavily customized to provide a different look for each airline.

The Red Hat operating system needed "a fair amount of tailoring" to work with Panasonic's hardware mix, Margis says. The open source nature of Linux, he says, made this tailoring possible. Most components of eX2 run Linux variants, he says, though the company uses Wind River's VxWorks in a few components that require high-performance streaming of content.

Virgin America also uses components of Panasonic systems in its Linux-based RED system. RED was built in-house "from scratch," says Charles Ogilvie, Virgin America's director of in-flight entertainment, using components of various IFEs including Panasonic's eFX.

With wireless access throughout each airplane that's integrated with the IFE, Ogilvie says, it's possible to play games or order food from your seat using your laptop. If you choose not to bring one, there's a keyboard at every seat as well.

Because RED is considered a beta product that's continually being updated, RED also incorporates a suggestion box. "It should always be a moving target," Ogilvie said.

Virgin America was not eligible for the Avion Awards this year because it did not begin operations until August, but Ogilvie says Virgin America will contend for the award next year.

Also fielding Linux-based IFE systems is Thales Aerospace. Its TopSeries systems provide seat-back entertainment on several carriers, including Air China, Air India, and Iceland Air, with an additional rollout on Japan Air Lines scheduled for next year.

About the awards

The World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA), based near Washington, DC, sponsors the Avion Awards. This year's winners were chosen based on a worldwide poll of 36,000 air travelers, says Elinor Kinnier, public relations manager for WAEA. Poll-based awards were given for overall and regional excellence -- a change from prior years, when a panel of judges chose winners in a variety of specific categories as well as an overall winner.

"What was missing, essentially, was the passenger experience," Kinnier says. Accordingly, WAEA turned to London-based Skytrax Research for a worldwide passenger survey. This Internet poll was conducted over two months earlier this year.

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