New Satellite TV System for Airlines

AirTV, a New York-based TV service company, is developing a new satellite distribution system that it is said will revolutionize the way video content is delivered to airline passengers on all of the world's major air routes.

The satellite network of AirTV will offer more than 40 channels of real-time video content, which can be viewed on in-flight entertainment systems that are already wired into thousands of wide-body and narrow-body airliners.

This delivery service is slated to begin at the end of 2004, with four AirTV satellites providing high-speed, broadband delivery in the interference-free satellite S-band.

A new term has been created to describe it: the direct-to-aircraft (DTAsm) delivery of video and audio content, along with the availability of high-speed e-mail/Internet access.

AirTV has targeted a market that is filled daily with captive audiences during periods of three to 15 hours. While airlines have spent billions of dollars outfitting their aircraft with video and audio playback equipment, the way programming is delivered to their aircraft hasn't changed much since the 1960s.

Even though airlines have incorporated some of the latest technology inside their aircraft, passengers continue to watch material from cassettes that are delivered by courier or the national mail service. Airliners today are equipped with the equivalent of 12- to-24-channel cable systems, supplied by cassettes that are "bicycled" from the program source to the plane. This outmoded distribution system which is used around the world to serve thousands of airplanes costs airlines millions of dollars annually, and no matter how well organized, the programming it delivers is old by the time it reaches the aircrafts.

Richard Stone, AirTV's executive vice president of Programming and Content, said: "Satellite distribution led to the dramatic growth of cable TV around the world, and we expect a similar result with the airline in-flight entertainment sector." Stone explained: "Just as new programming genres were developed in the television industry following the advent of satellite delivery, we expect to see the same pattern developing within the airlines as a result of the satellite network."

It is believed that, when passengers are able to watch real-time programming, weather and financial news will become major staples of high-flying audiences around the world, together with travel programs, documentaries and other shows.

The AirTV satellite system was designed from the start to interconnect aircraft anywhere on earth, and it is able to target TV and audio content to a specific aircraft.

Travelers will be able to see and hear content in their own languages and to access high-speed connectivity, providing passengers with Internet access and the capability to send e-mail while airborne.

While many airlines scaled back their in-flight entertainment and other on-board amenities, most carriers are once again looking to improve these services.

To understand AirTV services, one can compare data rates to aircraft today. The current standard is the Inmarsat communications relay network, which operates at a maximum rate of 9,600 bits per second. AirTV will interconnect airborne aircraft at 80 Mbps.

It is understood that the television generation dominates the air travel business. Globally, more than four hours a day is spent watching television and, it is believed that audiences want to continue that experience when they travel if possible. To validate this belief, AirTV commissioned independent research to measure consumer attitudes toward live in-flight television, how the addition of e-mail and Internet may change those attitudes, and how these attitudes might affect consumer behavior. The two firms were Forrester Research (North America) and Penn, Schoen & Berland (worldwide). The current standard of content changeout is anywhere from one to two months. Airlines just do not change their in-flight content as much as passengers would like.

Responses showed that virtually everyone, from first-class to coach, finds the delivery of live content and news very attractive.

Forrester found the greatest consumer interest to be in live television and flight status notifications, followed by in-flight Web access and self-service automated check-in at airports. Penn, Schoen & Berland found that the most popular content was world news, news from the region travelers voyaged to or from, weather updates, business news and sports. Finally, language was a very important factor in determining interest, with over 80 percent saying they were interested in viewing programming in their native language.

AirTV is a privately held company supported by EADS, Alcatel, Arianespace, CMC Electronics and other groups. It was founded five years ago in response to emerging interest in global connectivity for airborne aircraft. By securing 150 MHz of global mobile S-Band spectrum, the company was able to establish its position in the marketplace for in-flight broadband connectivity. Robert Crandall, the former Chairman of American Airlines recently joined the company as a special advisor to the Chairman.