I’m writing this whilst sitting on a Qantas flight from Perth to Sydney, heading home after attending the fantastic linux.conf.au 2014.
The plane is a Boeing 767, and unlike most flights I have been on in the last decade, this one has no in-flight entertainment system built into the backs of seats.
Instead, every passenger is issued with an Apple iPad (located in the back seat pocket), fitted with what appears to be a fairly robust leather jacket emblazoned with the words “SECURITY DEVICE ATTACHED” (presumably to discourage theft).
There are a few observations I have made about this setup.
At first glance, using a portable tablet device to deliver audio/visual entertainment instead of using a more traditional fixed setup seems like a good idea.
For one, the cost reduction for replacing faulty or out of date devices immediately becomes obvious.
And people by and large are reasonably capable these days when it comes to interacting with a tablet touchscreen interface, even if they don’t own one of those devices themselves.
However, I did notice quite a few passengers having issues with the iPads. The cabin crew spent roughly the first 30 minutes after takeoff dealing with support issues, which mainly involved pointing out user interface buttons, assisting with plugging in headphones, or replacing the occasional non-functional iPad with spares they had on-hand.
The iPad assigned to me initially had only 62% charge at the start of the flight, and had no Wi-Fi connection. Safari was the only app allowed, and due to the lack of Wi-Fi, the predefined home page could not load, resulting in an error. Due to the interface lockdown, I could not manually tell it to reconnect. The seat next to me was empty, so I was able to use the iPad assigned to that seat, which worked without a problem.
The fact that there were no charging ports or cables provided, suggests the iPads are charged elsewhere, perhaps off-plane and loaded on prior to boarding.
The entertainment system was delivered entirely through the web browser, which provided TV shows, movies, and some radio content. Unfortunately the system provided no flight information (e.g. location, altitude, or flight path), so I had to rely on spotting landmarks out the window to get a rough idea of where I was.
Because the iPads had an airplane mode symbol with a Wi-Fi indicator, it was obvious that the media was delivered wirelessly. That raises interesting questions about delivering streaming media to hundreds of devices at once. Presumably either they have been careful to distribute a substantial number of access points throughout the aircraft, or they are relying on not too many passengers using up all the bandwidth at once.
Running a site survey on my laptop (
iwlist wlan0 scan), I was able to detect 13 access points within range of my seat (53K, just a few rows from the very back), each of them with a hidden SSID. There was a mixture of 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies in use. Because I did not have airodump-ng installed on my laptop at the time, and not being familiar with wireless sniffing with other methods, I was unable to find out the name of the hidden SSID used.
At this point I was wondering why Qantas have issued iPads, rather than any other non–Apple tablet device. Presumably the lockdown features that Apple provides works well enough for 90% of Qantas’ use case, but I can’t help but wonder whether a customised system, e.g. a custom built Android on a more generic tablet, would provide better lockdown security, and easier management.
I don’t think that a customised Android or other Linux–based system is outside Qantas’ reach, especially given that fixed setups in some of their other planes already appear to sport a similar amount of customisation.
Presumably the decision to deploy iPads was made by executive management, perhaps even being first drafted on a bar napkin, rather than being a technical decision that was made by objectively weighing up the benefits and disadvantages of various systems.
At this stage, I should probably point out that Qantas is a largely brand-oriented company, relying on a strong corporate identity to justify their markedly higher prices. For example, in my dinner serving, I was given brand-name Arnotts crackers, Bega cheese, Dairy Farmers milk, Mount Franklin water, Just Juice, and Coca-Cola. Perhaps given this, it is unsurprising that Apple iPads were chosen.
From a power perspective, given that the iPads run on battery power for the duration of the flight, and the only gear required to be powered by the aircraft are the access points and file serving infrastructure, rather than the fixed entertainment consoles as well, we are probably seeing a reduction on the aircraft’s power strain as a result of this. How significant this is, I am not sure, as I would imagine power is not a particularly scarce resource on an aircraft on the scale of a Boeing 767.
I wonder how much this idea will catch on. Assuming the Wi-Fi based approach continues to perform well, it makes a good retrofit solution for replacing older generation entertainment systems in current aircraft.
Given that what was once a cutting edge premium feature aboard aircraft has now become standard, and demonstrably delivers customer satisfaction whilst being built atop of commodity consumer hardware, I feel we will see more of this in aircraft in years to come.