Q: How did the joint venture with Panasonic come about?
A: On the Lufthansa Technik side we have a well-established CMS and IFE operation for business jet and VIP aircraft. We are a supplier to Bombardier for the Lear and the Challenger programmes and we deliver a ship set for Bombardier on average every three to five working days.
In 2009 we reviewed extending our scope in the VIP aircraft space, where the aircraft is a kind of a hybrid between a commercial airline cabin and an executive jet. We began talking to our friends at Panasonic, who also wanted to develop product for this space. They were looking for some components that we had, and they obviously had excellent CMS and IFE products that are a good match for the needs of a hybrid aircraft. As it became clear that we had very complementary sets of equipment and the skill set to access the VIP jet market, the JV was a natural end point of our discussions.
Q: There is quite a gap in time between 2009 and when the venture started in April 2011; why did things take so long?
A: The negotiations between ourselves and Panasonic went forward very rapidly. But when two big companies want to start a JV you have to get permission from the competition authorities. That takes time. However, we got the clearance that we sought. I now have two jobs following the JV. I run the CMS/IFE side of Lufthansa Technik’s operation and I am the CEO of IDAIR. My counterpart from Panasonic, Craig Depner, is President and CTO of IDAIR as well as holding responsibilty for systems integration and PAC, where they look after IFE systems for commercial airlines. The JV focuses on aircraft the size of the Boeing 737 BBJ, Airbus Corporate Jets and the larger aircraft such as the 747-8. We have a few under contract at the moment as this is becoming quite a popular VIP aircraft.
Q: What are the major challenges when it comes to specifying and installing IFE and CMS systems in VIP aircraft?
A: Some of the companies who have set out their stalls to provide IFE systems to business jet owners are under the impression that they can take equipment from the consumer market and install it on an aircraft. Setting aside the fact that an aircraft is a very harsh environment for equipment such as hi-fi, blu-ray disk players and so on, what you have to realise is that the kit you see in the consumer market is mostly out of date six to 12 months later. The owner or operator of a VIP jet is probably looking at holding onto the aircraft for ten or more years. The world of audiovisual entertainment moves at a considerable pace, so whatever system you put into the aircraft has to be capable of being upgraded whenever it is convenient for the owner, without ripping out panels and breaking into highly expensive interior work. If the form factor of the device changes you do not want to have modify the cabinetry to install a replacement!
Next, look at the airframe of a VIP jet. It is a high-vibration, high-shock environment and devices built for the consumer market are not designed to take that kind of treatment. When a device is attached to the airframe, it takes the full brunt of whatever affects the frame. Also, the electromagnetic interference (EMI) characteristics of a consumer device are not suited to the certification process that an IFE system has to go through. You do not want the device emitting electrical noise that can disturb aircraft communications, for example. Every element of the IFE system we provide goes through a rigorous testing procedure and the entire system is built by us from the ground up. This is what differentiates us from the competition. Our systems are built for the aviation environment and for long-term support.
Q: The server side of things will also be very demanding I imagine?
A: These days everything is digitised when it comes to content, so you need powerful servers to provide a rich range of content for users. Now rotating hard drives do not like humidity and vibration, and the challenge is to ensure that the servers you use with the IFE system are going to work reliably for a long time. Plus they have to be able to close down gracefully if the pilot decides to shut down the IFE system. All of this is standard with our systems. Usability and reliability are what end users and owners want. The IFE system cannot be allowed to become an embarrassment on the aircraft during a flight. If the owner invites his or her friends on board and they can’t watch their chosen movie, the owner will not be satisfied with the system.
Q: What is the orders pipeline like?
A: We have in excess of ten projects going on at any one time and we are doing installations at completions centres around the world. We set up the system in our lab to test it and then we deliver the equipment to the completion centres and they fit it onto the aircraft. Panasonic has the equipment and skills to do distributed IFE across a large-scale aircraft, plus the in-seat equipment for the denser seating areas, such as the staff seating area on a BBJ. What LHT brings is the VIP room-based IFE and the means to control and drive all the applications and the surround sound. The good thing about the JV is that IDAIR benefits from the normal activities of both parent companies. Panasonic focuses on the commercial airlines while at Lufthansa Technik we are developing systems for business jets. IDAIR sits in the middle and cherry picks the best of both worlds for our VIP offering!