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.
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