Virgin America’s guts-out refurb of Panasonic IFE is genius

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In what Panasonic Avionics suggests is a world first, Virgin America is pulling the guts out of its existing eFX-based seatback IFE and replacing it with the very latest Eco V2 Android-based technology.

Despite the fervor in the tech media around Android-based IFE, that’s nothing new — numerous current-generation systems are based on the Google mobile OS rather than the previous generation’s Linux backbone.

The really interesting part is the cost and time benefits to seat certification, recertification and HIC testing that result from pulling out the innards of eFX and replacing them with Eco V2. That’s why Virgin America’s mockups don’t look particularly different. But they certainly are inside.

“We wanted to update our overall in-flight entertainment experience with an eye to faster updates,” Virgin America’s Sean Harris tells Runway Girl Network, “and the ECO V2 technology and Android platform, allows us to do so more quickly — within our existing seating.” 

RGN is given to understand that the development timeline and process will be significantly faster with the new system.

According to Panasonic’s Eco V2 marketing blurb: “Our smallest, lightest weight, lowest power smart monitors are available in 9-inch and 11.1 inch versions, and can be integrated directly into the seat, mounted on the seatback with a tilt mechanism, or arm mounted. The sleek design is enhanced by the jet back color scheme, and the beveled edge contains the integrated audio, USB jacks and credit card reader. The Eco V2 Series supports HD video and decoding at 720p.”

For Virgin America, the upgrades aren’t so much about the sleek design, but revolve around the guts: a quad-core processor, 720p HD capability, and capacitive touch (rather than the resistive touch in the current generation). For an airline that launched in the same year as the iPhone, the original eFX seatback entertainment was earthshattering when compared with an old Nokia dumbphone, but as iPhones developed and the iPad arrived in 2010, resistive touch started feeling pretty old.

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Since Panasonic Avionics ensures backwards compatibility from a systems perspective, the IFE-maker had no hesitation in enthusing about the benefits when speaking with Runway Girl Network, including highlighting that the primary focus of benefits are on the seatback experience, though Virgin America’s Harris explains crew panel upgrades will “not only improve the processing power of the system but also to feature an enhanced graphical user interface (GUI) for ease of use.” 

There’s an increase in library space as well, according to Virgin America’s VP brand marketing and communications Abby Lunardini, with Red Beta offering three times as much content on board a solid state server that should also improve load times for passengers. Virgin America is also working with Netflix to offer series like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, and is working with fellow Californian outfit Dysonics to bring surround sound to seatback entertainment for the first time, using passengers’ existing headphones. Dysonics surround sound will be featured on a selection of the library content, including Game of Thrones, Insurgent and Run All Night.

Clearly, this is a smart option to get all the advantages of a new system but without needing to buy, fit, certify and roll out new seats — an expensive and time-consuming task. RGN is given to understand that the primary seat safety testing required for the new product was to ensure nonlethality of the capacitive touch surface, with many of the tests required for a new seatback package not required.

And Virgin America certainly won’t be the last airline to go down this route, given the number of eFX systems out there and the step change in video quality, user experience, performance and functionality that Eco V2 brings. 

Red-Beta-Blog-1While Panasonic suggests the particular way that Virgin America is going about its gutting-the-old-system refurbishment is a world first, Air New Zealand might well be a contender to quietly have already planted its flag, Amundsen-style. 

Air New Zealand’s Boeing 777-200ER fleet (called 777-200 by the airline) was delivered in 2005-06 with Business Premier as its top product, a licensed implementation of Virgin Atlantic’s 2003 Upper Class Suite, which featured Panasonic Avionics’ S3000 system. To bring the 777-200 fleet in line with the 2011-era 777-300ER fleet (called 777-300 by the airline) Air NZ is currently well into a refurbishment programme at its Christchurch maintenance base. 

RGN flew on the second refurbished aircraft, ZK-OKE, a few months ago and was very impressed by the upgraded IFE, which looked like eX2 but felt a generation newer, rather like eX3 The crew told RGN that the system was still eX2, although the airline announced in 2012 that Panasonic’s eXLite system would be used, although a later trade notice suggested the aircraft have eX3 instead.

Air New Zealand refurbished 777-200 cabin, image - John Walton

Air New Zealand refurbished 777-200 cabin, image – John Walton

RGN’s detailed enquiries to Panasonic Avionics and Air New Zealand about the specifics of this admittedly niche question have not yet been returned.

Virgin America plans to roll out Red Beta to three aircraft this month and to eighteen aircraft by year’s end, with the rest of the fleet retrofitted by the end of 2016.

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