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Earlier this week Australian Business Traveller got hands-on with Qantas’ ‘Q Streaming’ system, which lets passengers use an iPad for in-flight entertainment.
After our flight we sat down with Adam Zammit from Qantas’ Customer Experience Innovation Team, project leader on Q Streaming, to learn more about what’s happening behind the scenes.
Zammit has been working on the project since the middle of last year, and is also attached to this month’s trial of in-flight Internet on Qantas’ Airbus A380s.
Wi-Fi in the sky
Each iPad connects to one of five wireless access points, fitted in ceiling compartments running down the right side of the cabin.
The access points work just like the wireless hotspot in a cafe or hotel, although for the first half of the trial they’re password-protected so you can’t log onto them with your own devices.
However, the Qantas-supplied iPads have all been preset with the network password and WiFi is activated on startup, for instant hassle-free connection to the network and the server. (And even if you could get onto the network you’d need special software to access the Q Streaming system.)
The wireless network is turned off during take-off and landing, so Q Streaming can be used only during that period of ‘level flight’.
For the technically-inclined, each hotspot uses a dual-band 802.11n WiFi box which Qantas says can handle all 254 passengers watching the same program at the same time while enjoying smooth playback.
Lufthansa says the BoardConnect technology can support 100 simultaneous users per wireless access point, so Qantas’ spread of five transmitters for some 250-odd passengers is well within the margin.
Even so, Zammit tells Australian Business Traveller that software smarts built into the network will ensure that no single access point is overload with too many users.
The content hub
None of the in-flight videos or music is stored on the iPads – everything is sent from a ‘content server’ system located under the floor near the cockpit.
This mini-computer has a pair of identical 500GB solid state drives, each of which contains all the in-flight programming so that even if one drives fails the Q Streaming system will keep running.
The server also stores the results of the survey loaded onto each iPad. Zammit says that the feedback to date is overwhelmingly positive, and the most requested features for addition to Q Streaming are movies and Internet.
Q Streaming is built on the BoardConnect platform created by Lufthansa Systems: here's a video from Lufthansa to showcase all that BoardConnect can do.
However, Zammit says that BoardConnect is currently being used only for this trial phase and Qantas has put out an open RFP (request for proposal) for similar technology from other suppliers of in-flight systems for a broader rollout across the 767 fleet.
The Q Streaming app
The Q Streaming app itself is designed by Lufthansa’s BoardConnect boffins as a ‘white label’ program which is customised by each partner airline with their own branding and graphics.
So what you see on Qantas should be similar to the apps used by other BoardConnect customer airlines including Germany’s Condor (due to begin its own trials later this month), Virgin Australia (slated for mid-year) and Virgin America.
Qantas aims to make the Q Streaming app available as a free download from the iTunes Store around the middle of February, so that passengers can use their own iPads and iPhones for the final two weeks of the trial.
(It’s a tiny 2MB, Zammit says, making it a snap to download while you’re still at the airport if the gate crew announce that the flight you’ll soon be boarding features Q Streaming.)
Windows and Mac laptops will also be able to access Q Streaming during the last two weeks of the trial, provided they’re running the latest version of Microsoft’s Silverlight software.
Zammit tells Australian Business Traveller that Lufthansa is also working on an app for Android-powered tablets and smartphones, however this won’t be completed until after the current Q Streaming trial finishes.
All iPads on the test plane are collected after the last flight, taken to a ‘secure room’ in the airport and recharged overnight (their screens are also given a wipe-down to remove a day’s worth of smears and smudges).
Qantas' Zammit is very pleased at the iPad’s battery life.
For example, on the day that Australian Business Traveller tried Q Streaming, the test 767 flew Sydney-Brisbane, Brisbane-Darwin, Darwin-Brisbane and finally back to Sydney – and the iPads on that last flight still had plenty of juice in the tank.
One of the initial concerns for any iPad-as-IFE programme would be theft.
After all, when you put an iPad 2 into every seat pocket you’d expect a few to find their way into a passenger’s carry on bag and be carried off the plane.
Zammit tells Australian Business Traveller that to his surprise (and of course delight), not a single iPad has gone missing.
But what’s to stop a light-fingered flyer from pinching an iPad?
While some airlines are looking at inserting tiny RFID chips into a tablet’s case so that it can be immediately detected if a passenger tries to walk off the plane with it, Qantas isn’t using any RFID measures for this trial.
Instead, it’s relying on the iPad’s inbuilt security and remote management features.
First of all, each iPad is actually a 3G model and contains a Telstra SIM card, although the 3G transmitter is disabled and the SIM card hasn’t been activated.
Should an iPad go AWOL, Zammit says Qantas will use Apple’s Find My iPad so that once the iPad is connected to a wireless network it can be locked and if necessary wiped, while Telstra can also activate the 3G SIM card to aid in plotting the iPad’s location using Google Maps.
Zammit says that while Qantas won’t take any direct action to recover the iPad, information on the iPad’s location is then turned over to the police.
After the Q Streaming trial finishes at the end of February, Zammit’s team will take a deep breath and consider a broader rollout across more aircraft.
If Qantas moved ahead with Q Streaming (and hard to see why they wouldn’t), the system will be installed on 11 other domestic Boeing 767s (for the boffins, these will be all the aircraft carrying VH-OGx registrations) and then the four Boeing 767s configured for international routes.
After that, Zammit says, would come the Airbus A330s which Qantas will inherit from Jetstar when the low-cost carrier gets its new Boeing 787 Dreamliners from 2013; this could be followed by The Red Roo’s own Boeing 787s when delivery begins in 2015-2016.
These could conceivably include seats such as B/E’s Pinnacle series, shown below, which can be fitted with a built-in iPad bracket at eye level.
However, Q Streaming wouldn’t be installed on any aircraft which already has individual video screens for each set, such as the Airbus A380, Boeing 747 and the newest Boeing 737-800s.
Other future options include flight statistics and the ‘moving map’. (And for our part, we’d love to see that map tied into Google Earth and even the relevant portion of Wikipedia for details on each city, river or other landmark that’s passing far below!).