How To Add 3000 iPads To An Airline

Jetstar has deployed iPads as its in-flight entertainment system, but the process has taken more than a year since the first public pilot was announced. What were the big technical challenges? How can the airline ensure they don’t get stolen or tampered with? And why isn’t Angry Birds available as an option? We’ve got the inside story.

If you get on a Jetstar domestic flight longer than two hours — Townsville to Melbourne, say — from tomorrow, you’ll have a different option to its long-standing offer of renting a DVD player and a small selection of movies. Instead, you’ll be able to rent an iPad preloaded with movies, TV shows and magazines. From December, the range will be extended to most of Jetstar’s Australia-based flights, including international flights, and will also include a selection of 11 games.

There are some obvious advantages to using tablet devices for in-flight entertainment rather than seatback screens. First and foremost is cost: fitting out a single plane with conventional systems can cost more than $1 million, and maintenance is expensive and troublesome. Long-haul travellers are all too familiar with the experience of losing their entertainment options while the system is rebooted, a process that can take anywhere from three minutes to an hour or more. If your iPad plays up, the staff can simply give you another one.

However, the process of implementing a tablet-based system is rather more complicated than just heading to Costco and putting 3,000 in a trolley or ten. Even today, one day before the official launch of the service, details are being finalised. Warehouse workers are busy putting the iPads into their specially-designed cases, which are apparently in such short supply that travellers on the test/media flight from Melbourne to Auckland aren’t actually using them. Instead, they have more conventional iPad cases, which don’t include some of the features of the “proper” offering, such as an extended life battery, a block over the Home key so you can’t switch apps (more on that in a bit), and an RFID tag to prevent passengers from stealing the device.

First Look At Jetstar’s iPad Entertainment System

Some of the complications result from the decision to use the iPad, thus entering the mysterious world of Apple. Despite Jetstar’s positioning as Qantas’ cheaper sibling, surprisingly the airline never contemplated deploying Android tablets, even though those undoubtedly could have been sourced for considerably less money. “The iPad is the superior device,” Jetstar CEO David Hall said in explaining the decision. “We believe this is the best technology on the market.”

Apple, though, has a focus on selling direct to consumers rather than in bulk to businesses, which turned out to be a major factor in the 18-month rollout for the project. Merely lining up an enterprise-grade supply deal took some time, according to Michael Reilly, chief operating office for Stellar Inflight, which built the main app for Jetstar. The announcement of the iPad 2 earlier this year also caused complications: Jetstar contemplated using a mix of original and second-generation devices but eventually settled solely on the second model. Supply shortages due to the Japanese tsunami caused further supply issues.

Choosing Apple also complicated the process of negotiating with Hollywood studios for the rights to their content. “It took time to persuade them that there was a way of loading content onto the iPad that didn’t involve the iTunes store,” Reilly said.

To ensure that copyrighted content was protected and that users couldn’t easily adjust settings, all the Jetstar options are essentially enclosed in a giant Stellar “blue box” application which is running when the device is handed to a passenger. Because the home button is blocked in the sealed case, you can’t switch into other applications. Movie playback, magazine viewing and game playing are all handled within this environment.

Apart from extending battery life and offering protection, the custom case and battery serves a second purpose: it makes it easier to recharge the device. Rather than taking the entire supply of iPads (between 24 and 160) off the plane every time between trips, only the cases are taken off the plane, and then only if there’s a lengthy stop (more likely overnight than with planes that run a return trip between two destinations). Recharge facilities are located in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Coolangatta, Auckland and Christchurch.

Once a month, the devices have their content updated. This is a process which is currently done via a wired connection, though Jetstar is exploring Wi-Fi options. The latter will arguably become essential if plans to add news content, updated daily, kick off early next year. With a wired connection, an individual tablet can take up to 45 minutes to update (sound familiar, iOS users?), though 50 iPads can be updated simultaneously. Reilly estimates that the update process will take around 2 days each month in total.

On the next update in December, the devices will see a major change: 11 games supplied by French developer Gameloft. Each of those has also had to be customised, both to remove multiplayer features and other options which depend on internet connectivity and to ensure that the apps can run on the modified devices. The games have to run within the “blue box” app created by Stellar, rather than natively within iOS, and again need modifications to allow easy switching between apps. Gameloft ANZ sales and marketing manager Paul Puech said that process was complicated for the first title (hence the delay during the initial rollout), but is simpler now that a process is in place.

That use of what amounts to an additional OS on top of iOS explains why there won’t be a broader range of games, and why perennial favourites from other suppliers such as Angry Birds and Flight Control won’t be appearing any time soon. Puech expects, however, that the range of games will also be updated regularly, which is a contrast to most seat-based entertainment systems.

Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Jetstar.

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