Last week I had the opportunity to sit in the centre jumpseat of a Condor Airlines Boeing 767 during takeoff from Rhodes, Greece. The experience was nothing short of exhilarating. I was forced to stifle any verbal expression of excitement, however, because Condor observes a quiet cockpit below 10,000 feet.
Once we were comfortably climbing to altitude, I peppered the pilots with questions about flying the venerable 767 workhorse, whose flight deck avionics looks decidedly – and delightfully – old fashioned compared to new-design aircraft that feature numerous LCD multi-function displays.
Unsurprisingly, the pilots said they absolutely love flying the 767 because it allows them to do just that – fly. Yet I couldn’t help but observe that this 767 is a study in contrasts. Whilst the cockpit conjures up images of days gone by, the cabin is a study in modern technology. That’s because Condor has started rolling out new wireless inflight entertainment across its fleet. The BoardConnect system, supplied by Lufthansa Systems, allows passengers to wirelessly stream movies and other content to their own personal electronic devices (PEDs).
It would be an understatement to say that wireless IFE is shaking up the industry. And it’s easy to see why. “Most current IFE solutions are complex and hard-wired. Therefore they are expensive to purchase and install, difficult to maintain and inflexible to use,” says Lufthansa Systems. “BoardConnect, in contrast, is a kind of intranet on a plane which replaces a wired network with a wireless network based on established standards. Instead of connecting every single seat to the on-board content server through several kilometres of cables, BoardConnect has just a few access points.”
Indeed, a bevy of journalists, including myself, effortlessly streamed movies to our own PEDs during a roundtrip flight between Frankfurt and Rhodes.
BoardConnect currently supports the following devices: all Macintosh laptops (e.g. MacBook Pro or MacBook Air) with an Intel Core Duo processor (min. 1.83 GHz) or higher and 1 GB RAM; all Windows laptops running on Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7 with an Intel Dual Core processor (min 1.6 GHz) or higher and 1–2 GB RAM; all iPads running on iOS 4.3 or higher; all iPhone 3GS, 4 and 4S running on iOS 4.3 or higher; and the iPod touch running on iOS 4.3.
Laptops must have a Microsoft Silverlight browser plug-in (at least version 4.0.50826.0). Silverlight comes pre-installed on most new devices, but Condor urges passengers to check to see if Silverlight is installed on their laptop before travelling. For the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch, passengers must download Condor’s “Fly-Fi” app in the App Store.
During the Frankfurt-Rhodes roundtrip, I used my own iPad to stream a variety of movies, including the Amanda Seyfried flick, ‘Letters to Juliet’, and the Queen Latifah vehicle, “Just Wright”. Okay, so I’m a sucker for a little romance. The movies offered on Condor are not ‘early window’ releases because Hollywood studios have not permitted the streaming of such content to passengers’ own devices due to security concerns.
“There is software which is part of our main streaming software that prohibits [the unlawful capturing of video]. But there is always a difficulty to make it 100% certain,” says Norbert Muller, head of BoardConnect programme management at Lufthansa Systems. “That’s why the studios so far only approve [early run] Hollywood content for really protected devices with a case [such as repurposed portables provided by airlines].”
For example, Qantas has been trialling BoardConnect on a single Boeing 767, but, unlike Condor – which is allowing passengers to stream videos to their own devices – Qantas provides specially protected iPads to passengers.
Will studios ever relent and allow early window content to be streamed to passengers’ own devices? “That’s an ongoing discussion. It’s hard to say when and which studio will move first. I’m pretty sure at some point we may see early window content on a personal device as well,” says Muller.
A decision by some studios to participate in UltraViolet gives Muller even greater hope that all parties will find a path forward, since the formation of this digital locker shows a willingness on their behalf to allow people to access movies and TV shows in an online library, and watch them anywhere.
“[UltraViolet is] playing into our game actually,” says Muller. He points out that BoardConnect uses PlayReady, the technology behind its Silverlight digital rights management (DRM), “which is one of the most secure protection measures so we have a lot there and then again it’s coming down to securing the device. If you can’t secure it by a case, because it’s a personal device, you need to have software to secure it and that is what needs to be developed, proven and accepted by the studios to make that step.”
Meanwhile, Lufthansa Systems is working to ensure that BoardConnect supports Android devices. “The variety in Android is pretty wide because a lot of cell phone providers actually customise their own Android so it makes it more difficult to develop such a complex software with all the security measures,” says Muller, adding, however, “it will be launched later this year”.
Condor will fly its BoardConnect-equipped 767 (D-ABUZ) until the end of the year in a trial mode and then decide what airliners will be fitted next, says Muller. Passengers can check the routes on which BoardConnect is available on the Condor web site, condor.com, under “Stars am Himmel”.
He notes that Lufthansa Systems’ experience with the BoardConnect trial on a Qantas 767 “shows that we can have 50 people per WAP, all streaming video so we have 270 seats on the Condor aircraft and we tested that and [found] we can support all of them so that’s a bit above 50.”