Zodiac Aerospace is known for a great many things, but inflight connectivity isn’t necessarily one of them. That’s why you might be surprised to learn that the aircraft interiors giant – which supplies everything from seats and galleys to IFE and overhead bins – has been quietly building up its wireless IFE and connectivity proficiencies over the last year, and now fully identifies as an all-round “IFEC” provider.
In 2013 the company acquired a small, but highly respected technology firm called TriaGnoSys, which was already providing cellular and wireless solutions to the industry, and boasted inflight connectivity provider OnAir as its largest customer. “What OnAir has been doing in the retrofit market with GSM and wireless streaming is based on TriaGnoSys hardware,” says Harry Gray, who serves as VP of sales and marketing for Zodiac’s ‘Zii’ unit, which is short for Zodiac Inflight Innovations.
In addition to that, says Gray, “We have also been delivering connectivity software to Thales for their IFE. When you look at who is doing what in wireless, and who is providing the hardware and software, we are now essentially fully self-contained. We do our own server, software, applications; the only thing we don’t build ourselves is the wireless access point.”
Zii is now more focused on selling its wireless products directly to airlines than simply whitelisting them for others. “We’ve got agreements in place today to continue offering our product as an OEM to both OnAir and Thales. But we’re still primarily focused on marketing directly to the airlines,” confirms Gray, who notes that Air Transat is already flying Zii’s wireless IFE product known as RAVE Wireless, a sister product to the firm’s established RAVE Centric seat-centric embedded IFE system.
“We did make a general announcement at the APEX EXPO trade show, where we signed up a large (unannounced) airline customer with 200-plus single aisle aircraft [for RAVE Wireless]. The first aircraft should be in service at the first of the year. That was a major coup for us. It was a huge competition with at least 10 suppliers that were in consideration for that business,” adds Gray.
RAVE Wireless is a stand-alone product but it can also be optionally combined with RAVE Centric, RAVE Cellular, and/or RAVE Broadband, notes the Zii executive. RAVE Broadband, you say? Naturally, our ears perk up whenever we hear the word “broadband” because we’re aware that passengers are nothing short of insatiable for bandwidth.
“We think Ka provides the best opportunity for meeting passenger expectations and service levels as the long-term solution. That includes both ViaSat’s regional Ka and Inmarsat’s Global Xpress,” says Gray. And while he declines to specify just what type of partnerships have been forged in this regard, the Zii executive assures , “We’ve got a lot of connectivity proposals out there today with major airlines that provide a variety of technical solutions to meet their operational criteria. We anticipate some airline decisions taking place, hopefully with our connectivity solution before the end of this year.”
As previously reported by RGN, Zodiac is able to offer “complete cabin” packages to airlines, inclusive of Ka-band connectivity, IFE, seats, lavs, galleys, overhead bins and more.
Though Zii certainly sees Ka connectivity as the future, the company is also working on a couple of projects today where it’s interfacing its RAVE Centric embedded system “with other Ku-band connectivity solutions (not provided by Zii), as the airline had already selected their connectivity supplier”, reveals Gray.
This begs the question – does Zii have any plans for delivering a truly “connected” version of its own RAVE Centric embedded IFE solution with, say, social media applications and live credit card transactions? “We have proposals out there today to major airlines as well as OEMs to offer just that. I am hoping you’ll see an announcement in the not too distant future. And honestly, the TriaGnoSys piece is the brains behind it as well; it brought a lot of intellectual property (people, experience and success) that we are using today in our solutions,” says Gray.
Zodiac faces plenty of competition in the wireless and connectivity space. Big names like Panasonic, Thales, Gogo, Global Eagle and others – including potential partner ViaSat – have a hefty head-start on the firm. But TraiGnoSys and one of its original co-founders, Dr. Axel Jahn, are part of Zodiac’s now not-so-secret weapons for making fast gains in the space.
As for how the inflight Internet business model will shake out, Gray believes a one-size-fits-all pricing structure doesn’t suit the market, but that passengers will ultimately expect to be connected for free.
“Connectivity is one of those subjects that has the attention of the market on a global basis. The major question is – are passengers willing to pay for it? You can look at Starbucks, hotel lobbies, hotel rooms and what the consumer is asked to pay for or what is provided for free …I think it’s still yet to be determined, but at the end of the day, I think the trend is – and certainly with the younger generation – the expectation is that it will be free. I think there are few different business models that can provide services to meet both the airline budget as well as the passenger expectations,” he says.