Inflight Editor Satu Dahl speaks with Safran Passenger Innovations’ Ben Asmar, Vice President Products and Strategy to get the latest scoop on the company’s innovative RAVE OS ahead of the APEX Expo taking place in Long Beach on 25-27 October.
Will you have any new products or features to showcase at this year’s APEX EXPO?
During the last two years, we have been very busy updating the capabilities of our core IFEC platform RAVE OS, making it one of the most feature rich platforms on the market today. RAVE OS actually started flying late 2021, and since then it is now operating on 6 RAVE customers and growing, and the feedback we are getting is terrific. Passengers really love it.
We launched the product with the concept of giving passengers a much more modern experience, something that you could expect on a commercial tablet or a streaming application, with features such as Bluetooth, picture-in-picture and an intuitive User Interface that is visually stunning.
For us, this is just the start, and at this EXPO we will be showcasing some of the features we will be launching in the next 12 months. This includes our third party application platform, which allow third party developers to create apps that can run on RAVE. This provides a tremendous amount of flexibility for our customers, allowing them to deploy new IFEC applications to their system outside of the long software development lead times that are known in our industry and be in control of their own development.
We will also be showcasing a couple of RAVE applications that have been developed using our own third party tools, which will be deploying to customers very soon. They are Mobile Payments, which allows a passenger to purchase items on board aircraft through the IFEC system and pay for them on their own mobile device using credit card or a payment service such as Apple Pay or Google Pay.
The second app is an Advanced Survey app, which is actually a fully featured off the shelf survey application that we have packaged using our third party tools to make it available on RAVE. The huge benefit with this approach is this package comes with a powerful survey authoring tool that our customers can use to make their own surveys and publish them to their entire fleet at any time, as well as offloading survey responses that can be imported into existing customer satisfaction tools. We are really excited to be able to bring these types of applications to IFEC without requiring long lead time software development.
Another exciting feature we will be launching next year is content recommendations, while this is not a new concept, we are thinking about it differently and adding our RAVE touch to it, making it more engaging to passengers. Like most other media platforms, we will support recommendations in the movie selection menu and at the end of a movie. What we are adding to this concept are alternative recommendations, where we provide recommendations that are different to the current selection, guiding the passenger to content they may not have naturally selected, providing a surprise and delight moment. Our recommendation engine will support multiple modes, from meta data matching to using our onboard AI engine, creating targeted recommendations in the same way we do for advertising.
Following an announcement we made earlier this year, we are very excited to be bringing Sony’s award-winning 360 Reality Audio technology to RAVE IFE, in an exclusive partnership with WalkMix.com. Compatible with all connected headphones, 360 Reality Audio will support broad consumer adoption. Pairing this with RAVE’s Bluetooth technology maintains Safran Passenger Innovation’s lead in a new era of diverse audio innovations and services for passengers. RAVE spatial audio is the next frontier for in-flight multimedia and can take a passenger from their seat and virtually transport them into the middle of a concert hall. We believe this immersive experience powered by WalkMix and Sony 360 Reality Audio will be a compelling point of differentiation for RAVE customers by offering premium content and an elevated passenger experience.
How are you seeing the on-going recovery of the industry?
At the moment, the signs are very encouraging. You don’t have to look too far to find a news report where airports and airlines are struggling to keep up with demand, so the travel industry is definingly making a strong comeback where COVID protocols have been reduced and travellers deem the risk of travelling to be low.
This is also translating into IFEC, where we are seeing a tremendous amount of activity across most regions when it comes to new proposal requests, which is very positive news for the midterm and seems to be broadly in line with the latest recovery profile for new narrowbody and widebody aircraft. At this stage, proposals for Linefit are far out pacing retrofit proposals, and we anticipate that this will likely be the trend for at least the next 12 months.
In the near term, we are also starting to see some stability in the production lines of both major OEM’s where aircraft deliveries are beginning to become more predictable after a series of unprecedented industry disruptions. While this is good, the challenge that most suppliers have, particularly in the tech space, is a reliable supply chain, so the challenge becomes meeting the demand when parts are scarce. At Safran Passenger Innovations, managing supply chain at the micro level and daily parts allocation meetings have become the norm, and so far, this careful management has allowed us to allocate parts where they are needed the most to minimise disruption to our customers. Of course, this has only been possible with closely partnering with our customers and OEMs.
What are the key IFEC features that airlines are most focused on going into the second half of this decade?
We are definitely seeing some common themes, and it’s fair to say that just AVOD and a connection to the internet will not be enough as we approach the 2030’s. The themes we are seeing are:
– Digitization of the cabin. This is providing passengers with a personalised experience that also goes well beyond a personalised greeting at your seat. It’s about linking your airline profile with your in-flight experience and allowing preferences to follow you from flight to fight, incorporating loyalty, providing targeted retail experiences and of course the ability for airlines to continue engaging with the passenger after their flight. This is also a key pillar of Safran Passenger Innovation’s strategy over the next three years, we have started a new product line called RAVE Digital which is devoted to in-flight digital experience and helping our customers meet their goals when it comes to digitisation.
– Revenue Generation. Clearly after a shock such as the COVID crisis airline executives are once again evaluating ancillary revenue projects, to supplement ticket revenue to help get their airlines back to profitability and improve balance sheet outcomes. IFEC remains a key consideration for ancillary revenue generation, however there is also recognition that this has not been a very successful channel for many in the past. To a degree, this works hand in hand with digitisation, as this significantly increases the opportunities to engage with the passenger over more traditional duty free and onboard retail, where crew become the limiting factor. At Safran Passenger Innovations, we are totally rethinking how to approach IFEC revenue generation. Previous models have proven ineffective, so there is a need for something different. We are launching this effort later this year with our new Digital Advertising Platform, RAVE Advertising. This is not an inflight advertising solution. Rather, it’s a digital ad platform that we are using on-board an aircraft. Our vision is that seatback screens just become another digital billboard in the digital ad ecosystem. In fact, some advertisers may not even know they are advertising onboard an aircraft. This is just step number one. Our strategy also includes digital payments, ecommerce, and digital retailing.
– Environmental impact. This is a topic that has been grabbing a lot of attention recently. As an industry we have pretty lofty goals to meet in the next couple of decades and IFEC must also play its role. Airlines are looking for solutions that are lighter weight, use less power and reduce drag. This will become critically important as we start to see the next generation of aircraft being produced with significant carbon reduction targets in mind. At Safran Passenger Innovations, we have always been focused on reducing the impact of our system on the operation of the aircraft, while still providing a fully featured system. In each generation of hardware, we have removed weight and reduced power consumption and we plan to keep doing that as we design next generation systems. We need to think differently about onboard systems and look to new technologies to reduce the number of LRU’s required, reduce cabling requirements and at the same time look at the materials we are using to ensure that our parts can be recycled at the end of their useful life limiting the impact on our environment. It’s not just about the product, it’s about the whole life cycle.
Can you talk about any new IFE hardware you might have planned?
Our current generation of Hardware, RAVE Ultra, has been flying since Q4 last year and is now being installed on more and more of our customers’ aircraft, which is really exciting for us. This generation is what we will be deploying for the next few years. It’s something we are really proud of, and customers love it. With our 4K dockable displays in 7 sizes, we continue to bring the high reliability of our Seat Centric architecture with displays that are lighter and thinner than ever. In addition to displays, we have our small lightweight head end stocked with 16TB of storage as well as a range of power supplies to suit any scenario from 60W USB-C in every seat and AC Power Outlets. Our current generation hardware is available now for linefit on both Boeing and Airbus aircraft.
In terms of next generation hardware, we have started working on this, even though our current generation has only just started flying. Technology moves so quickly, as soon as we finish one generation we have to start on the next. Even though I can’t tell you the details of what we are working on yet, what I can say is that we are actually working on the next two generations of hardware now. The next generation will be more of an evolution of our current generation with a focus on weight reduction and efficiency targeted at narrowbody aircraft, which we expect to see this coming to market in the 2024 timeframe. What comes next will really be revolutionary, and we expect the same type of disruption we saw when we originally introduced RAVE to the market.
What has been the response to your recent announcement about being the Hardware supplier for Airbus’ Airspace Link HBCplus?
The response has been really positive, and we are very pleased with the level of activity we are seeing from customers interested to learn more. For HBCplus, customers will select this equipment as SFE from Airbus and Safran Passenger Innovations will then supply the equipment to Airbus for installation on the line. Although we are a supplier to Airbus in this case, we have been involved in many of the initial customer conversations. There are two key aspects of this solution that are getting people excited, First, this is an SFE solution from Airbus which offers a streamlined connectivity solution as part of the aircraft specification and second, the agnostic capability of the hardware, meaning the airline can select from a number of service providers that are compatible with the hardware and then change service providers in the future with as little as new software or a change to the modman (depending on the configuration). All of the other equipment remains the same.
In addition to HBCplus, we are also offering this hardware solution for retrofit programmes, allowing airlines to have a common set of hardware across their fleet. We also have plans in work to have this solution available on Boeing linefit aircraft through the approved offerability process.
This is a significant change to the status quo of in-flight connectivity and our expectation is that this will ultimately reduce costs for airlines and further expand the deployment of connected aircraft.
There is a lot of talk around supply chain shortages, are these shortages also impacting SPI?
Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone has been able to escape the recent supply chain shortages and Safran Passenger Innovations is no different. As I mentioned earlier, we have been managing our supply chain very tightly in order to minimise disruption to our customers. We are working closely with our suppliers, customers and OEMs to ensure that we are sending scarce parts to where they are needed most. So far, we have managed to mitigate delays that have caused significant impact to any of our programmes, and we will continue to manage this daily until the supply chain begins to stabilise.
At this stage, it seems likely that we will continue to see supply chain issues well into 2023. Although I expect to see improvements throughout the year, it is unlikely we will see what we would call normal until the end of 2023 or early 2024. This means that operating conditions will continue to be challenging for at least the next 18 months, so my hope is that as an industry we can rally and pull together and help each other as we all navigate these challenges on the path back to normal.