Air New Zealand’s IFE systems. Why is it so difficult to get the basics right?

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 25-Nov-2015 08:48

Anybody who knows me will know I’m a bit of a travel junkie - I love planes, and I love travel. I have flown around 50 plane flights per year over the past few years, with at least 2-3 trips to the United States every year, and typically flights to Australia every few months. All of this means a lot of time spent on planes, and in particular a lot of it spent on Air New Zealand planes. Despite their many failings including a very flawed Airpoints loyalty program and the extreme cost cutting attitude of the current executive team, I am still a very loyal customer.

Unless you’re flying on a low cost carrier, the expectation of most people flying on a plane these days if some form of in-flight entertainment (IFE) system, whether this be the more common seat back screen, or the airline supplying tablets to customers. Onboard WiFi is becoming increasingly common and is the way of the future, but until bandwidth issues between planes and the ground are eliminated this is still a few years away from becoming the norm - the seat back screen isn’t going anywhere fast.

Airlines both love and hate seat back screens. With the exception of newer generation systems launched in the last year or so which have made huge advances, IFE systems are typically expensive, power hungry, heavy, bulky (ever noticed the big boxes sitting under your economy seat taking up all your leg room?) and 300+ screens emit a huge amount of heat in the cabin that needs to be cooled. Without an IFE system however, passengers would baulk at flying on a plane for 12+ hours with absolutely nothing to do.

All of this brings me to my recent flights with Air New Zealand. Out of my last five long haul flights I’ve had the IFE system for my seat fully functioning on only one of those five flights. The other four flights have ranged from minor issues right through to a totally non functioning screen on my flight back from Vancouver last week. If I was to look back even further I’d estimate that system issues requiring seat reboots for my seat or individual seats around me where I’ve heard customers reporting issues, or full mid-flight system reboots occur on probably 30% of all flights. All of this poses one big question – why are these expensive systems so bad? If a TV manufacturer launched a TV that simply decided not to work some days, required reboots half way through your favourite TV show, randomly become non responsive, or suffered loss of audio sync, there would be outrage. People would be demanding their money back.

Air New Zealand use Panasonic Avionics as their IFE vendor. Across their fleet Air New Zealand operate three different IFE platforms – older generation Panasonic eFX systems on it’s A320 and 767-300 fleet, newer generation Panasonic eX2 systems on it’s 777-300 fleet, and the latest generation Panasonic eX3 systems on it’s 787-9 Dreamliner and 777-200 fleet (of which all aircraft flying have been newly refitted at the time of writing this from an older Thales system). The architecture of these individual systems varies greatly due to massive technology advances in the 10 years since the EFX system was new, and the launch of the eX3 system has seen Panasonic move from Linux to Android as it’s core operating system powering the IFE system. Tales of instability issues on the eX3 platform are well known – Air New Zealand had Panasonic engineers flying on 787 Dreamliner flights at one point so they could fix things when they broke.

Earlier this year Air New Zealand deployed new software updates to the eX2 systems on the 777-300 fleet to deliver a similar user interface (UI) as that used on the newer eX3 systems. As the eX2 screens aren’t multi point capacitive they can’t support swiping unlike the eX3 screens, but the look and feel is now similar. This software update immediately caused the in-flight maps to break and caused general instability issues across the fleet. As aircraft couldn’t easily be taken out of service to work on the issue many of these planes simply flew around broken for weeks. I flew through to London in June via Los Angeles in Business Premier and had pretty much an unusable IFE system on both flights on two individual planes. While the in-flight service managers (IFM) on both flights were extremely apologetic, I got the feeling from both that they were increasingly frustrated at the faults and felt that members of the IFE team on the ground were seemingly in denial that such issues existed.

Last week I flew to Vancouver for a quick week long holiday and got to experience the new eX3 system on a new 777-200 refit. On the way over the system worked flawlessly. On the way back the system was totally broken for both my seat and a number of other seats in the plane. Multiple seat reboots and help from the engineering on the ground was unable to solve the issue. Short of a full system reboot that would take down the entire aircraft for around 15 minutes (something crews will only do as a last resort due to the massive inconvenience it causes to all passengers) there was nothing that could be done. I sat there for 13 hours with no IFE and unable to use my laptop due to the incredibly crammed seats in economy class. While I managed to cope (and a generous Glenmorangie from the super friendly IFM at least helped me sleep!) the passenger behind me showed the level of expectation that many passengers have for an IFE system – he wanted (or should I say expected) to be upgraded to a seat that worked in Premium Economy or Business Premier. Needless to say that didn’t happen.

All of this poses a few big questions. Why are Air New Zealand’s IFE platforms so poor? Who is at fault? Panasonic for building poor quality products or Air New Zealand for poor implementations? More importantly why do flight crews believe that ground staff aren’t listening to their complaints and fault reports?

Am I just the unluckiest customer ever when it comes to issues? Or do other people see the same problems? I’d be interested in your comments.



Other related posts:
Air New Zealand launches Flexitime Membership (and how it can save you $$$)
Have an interest in retail payments and credit card interchange rates? Here’s your chance to have a say.
Fairfax takes journalism ethics and integrity to a whole new low with Stuff fibre








Comment by PolicyGuy, on 25-Nov-2015 09:36

I had a similar experience on a trans-Tasman A320 recently - the 'moving map' display simply didn't work, just a blank screen.
When I complained, the cabin crew member said "sorry, it's been like that on this plane for a couple of weeks, they can't fix it"

Should do better, Air NZ!


Comment by freitasm, on 25-Nov-2015 10:22

"I sat there for 13 hours with no IFE and unable to use my laptop due to the incredibly crammed seats in economy class. "

Ah, Air New Zealand crappy coach seats. If they could be more uncomfortable I am sure someone at Air New Zealand would do it.


Comment by drajk, on 25-Nov-2015 12:42

I too have experienced intermittent problems with these. I'd say that on at least a third of flights I've either had a problem myself or heard others nearby needing reboots. On one flight the whole plane was down for a significant time and I demanded and got Airpoints credit for myself and 3 others on my booking. They seem to have been having similar problems for a number of years and I would hope that whoever is responsible for these systems has or will be replaced as it simply isn't good enough. One hopes that other systems in the plane invisible to the passenger are of so unreliable. It also makes one more nervous about some of the new flight control technology on some large planes which I believe is or will be wireless - this clearly needs to be absolutely reliable and not subject to technical outage or blocking by those who might be motivated to do so.


Comment by nzsouthernman, on 26-Nov-2015 12:11

Does Air NZ provide USB charging in their seats yet? (Haven't flown international in a few years so am not up to speed with the current environment). If they do, I'd probably bring my own tablet & noise cancelling headphones and load it up with content to consume rather than use the IFE.  If I was a cynic I'd suggest that perhaps AirNZ is happy with unstable IFE as they'd prefer their customers to bring their own devices to amuse themselves.


Comment by snowfly, on 26-Nov-2015 14:45

I've been commuting weekly to Melbourne for the past 6 weeks, 11 flights so far, mixture of a320 and 767.
1 flight the IFE didn't work for my seat and approx 4 entire rows in the center of 767 economy, I received AP vouchers after they tried a 15-20 min reboot.
1 flight I had to wait 15 minutes for a reboot, then worked
At least 2 other flights I had people sitting next to me and their IFE didn't work, again receiving AP vouchers.

On the other hand, I've almost run out of decent movies to watch.
Do AirNZ release new movies each month? As I've got trips the first 2 weeks of December as well.
Gone from 0 SP to about 35 points below gold in the space of 2 months, knowing my luck I won't have any work trips planned for the next 10 months and will miss gold.


Comment by Technofreak, on 26-Nov-2015 21:28

Firstly I don't think it's unique to Air New Zealand.

I think part of the problem these systems are only fitted to aircraft, therefore by commercial standards the market is very small and I suspect the development and particularly certification costs are not insignificant. Getting the balance between development costs and unit retail costs right would be a challenge.

I've done 5 international flights with Air NZ this year and and 8 flights last year, the IFE has worked on every flight.

To answer nzsouthernman's question.  Yes Air NZ has USB power outlets and 110VAC outlets which will power most computer and USB devices.


Comment by Daryl Blake, on 26-Nov-2015 22:40

My mate worked for Panasonic as a software developer of these IFE systems while he was on a working holiday in the UK. At one point I saw some pretty terrible code screenshots. Lets just say from what I saw they must have not learned how to use functions. 
He would always complain about a maze of if statements on how to open up a media player or pause something. And that same maze was copied and modified throughout. It was nasty.


Comment by MikeAqua, on 30-Nov-2015 17:27

I gave up on IFE for short haul ages ago.  It gets interrupted too frequently by the cabin crew making  announcements - like the options for the lunch I'm not getting :(

I just use my phone with a few movies/books pre-loaded. 

The IFE USB outlets are good for charging the phone. 

Tip:  I take a headphone adapter so you can plug the airline's headphones into my phone during the safety video etc .  My  entertainment doesn't get interrupted and the cabin staff assume I am plugged into the IFE.


Comment by Hunter, on 2-Dec-2015 22:34

Personally I rather not watch any movies on board.The screen resolution is that bad, that it totally kills the whole movie experience.Rather not watch it and get the DVD later kind of thing.Most times, I turn the screen off as it is irritating anyway, and use my tablet, loaded to the hilt with stuff.Only problem is that usb only will charge at 0.5amps, which is too low to keep the battery going, so it slowly drains.But it has enough capacity to keep running for a quite few hours until I nod off.Hate using the air show with the map thing on it, makes the flight even longer, like "Are we there yet? Oh God, we move like a fraction of a millimeter in the last hour"Only thing good about the IFE is the black box at the feet, which is kind of warm and keeps the feet toasty!Your mileage maybe different...


Comment by KaroriPete, on 16-Dec-2015 16:25

I've had quite a few problems with IFE systems, but not just on Air NZ. I think all the airlines seem to have similar issues.

Also I'm not sure what flaws you're referring to in the loyalty program but I'd have to say I've had really good use out of the rewards system since they changed from Air Points, and have had many domestic and international flights courtesy of Air Dollars. Prior to that it was just too hard to find rewards seats that suited when I wanted to fly. Now I can buy any seat I want, just may have to pay a bit more for it.

In contrast, I still have about 250,000 Qantas points, and have never managed to use one. I'll probably end up buying vouchers or something with them, but for whatever flaws it may have I like the Air NZ system a lot more.


Comment by robert, on 19-Dec-2015 22:11

I'd never rely on IFE and always take a device of choice e.g. phone, tablet, netbook etcI wonder if I could get a discount for not having IFE not made available to me !?I really wonder in this day why they bother anymore


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sbiddle's profile

Steve Biddle
Wellington
New Zealand


I'm an engineer who loves building solutions to solve problems.


I also love sharing my views and analysis of the tech world on this blog, along with the odd story about aviation and the travel industry.

My interests and skillset include:

*VoIP (Voice over IP). I work with various brands of hardware and PBX's on a daily basis
  -Asterisk (incl PiaF, FreePBX, Elastix)
  -Polycom
  -Cisco
  -Linksys
  -Patton
  -Zyxel
  -Snom
  -Sangoma
  -Audiocodes

*Telecommunications/Broadband
  -xDSL deployments
  -WiMAX
  -GSM/WCDMA
  -WiFi

*Structured cabling
  -Home/office cabling
  -Phone & Data

*Computer networking
  -Mikrotik hardware
  -WAN/LAN solutions

*Wireless solutions
  -Motel/Hotel hotspot deployments
  -Outdoor wireless deployments, both small and large scale
  -Temporary wireless deployments
   
*CCTV solutions
  -Analogue and IP

I'm an #avgeek who loves to travel the world (preferably in seat 1A) and stay in nice hotels.


+My views do no represent my employer. I'm sure they'll be happy to give their own if you ask them.


You can contact me here or by email at stevenbiddle@gmail.com

twitter.com/stevebiddle