We ask a lot of the little entertainment systems you watch onboard our aircraft. Not for them the coddled life of the home TV, sitting in the corner of the room waiting for a careful owner to watch a couple of hours of telly a night. Our TVs travel around the world. They have to endure take offs and landings, big changes in temperature and pressure, turbulence, spillages and a new stranger pushing all their buttons for 12 hours a day, every day.
With a complete aircraft system costing millions of pounds they need to have a long life, but of course things do go wrong. It’s inevitable. Stepping up to fix things is one of our specialist engineering teams; Cabin Avionics. This small but mighty team consists of just three people who look after more than 12,000 sets. With years of engineering training and expertise behind them they achieve a reliability rating of over 98%. Quite impressive when you think about what we ask of our inflight entertainment equipment and much higher than you’d get on a telly bought on the high street. This is so important for our customers so it is very important to us too.
Meet the team
The job was originally done by our line engineers until a dedicated team was set up in 1996. This year, our Cabin Avionics team are celebrating their 20th birthday as only they know how; in a quiet room full of interesting electronic gadgetry. They began repairing all of the components possible themselves, including consoles, monitors, passenger control units, video players, seat boxes and audio jacks. In the early days they also repaired video Walkmans and seat harnesses, and charged the millions of batteries we used. These days the only batteries that need charging on our aircraft are the ones used in our emergency medical defibrillators. The team also make their own test equipment and are responsible for calibrating tools such as the wire crimpers that our engineers use. This all needs to be done to the highest standards and is subject to auditing and scrutiny by the Civil Aviation Authority and other regulatory bodies.
Repairing our sets
The entertainment system consists of the monitor and handset plus the wiring that joins them together and connects them to the main system frame. Every one of the thousands of parts that make up the system are manufactured to the highest spec and have to be approved by a number of safety authorities before being let anywhere near an aircraft. It goes without saying the repairs must also conform to the very highest standard and can be inspected and audited at any time. The main component to fail is the control consoles and their connecting wires. Occasional issues have also arisen with headphone jacks snapping off in their socket – but this has been improved with newly designed units that make extracting the broken piece very quick and easy for engineers at the airport.
Not just repairs
As well as repairs, another part of the Cabin Avionics team’s job is to make sure all the films, music and other content for our systems works well and you can easily find everything you need. Each monthly cycle of entertainment programmes goes through the workshop for thorough testing to make sure the menus work as they should before they’re loaded onto encrypted cartridges which are taken out to our aircraft. Very different from the early days…
Entertainment systems past and future
In much the same way we laugh when looking back at old ‘80s brick-sized mobile phones, here at Virgin Atlantic we smile when looking at our first Economy Class seatback TVs. The Phillips Airvision had 3 inch, yes 3 inch, LCD colour screens in Economy and a massive 6 inch screen in Upper Class. Our customers were spoiled with a choice of 6 channels of video from VHS tapes loaded at the control centre. But we were so proud of what we could offer our customers. Up until that point, the best Economy entertainment consisted of a drop down screen at the front of the cabin showing the same programmes for everyone.
Today, on our 787s you’ll get a large touch screen showing a dazzling array of films, television programmes and kids’ shows. You can play games, follow your progress on sky maps and watch live news. Even our most frequent flyers have enough to keep them entertained.
As for the future, the talk among tech reporters is that seatback TVs will eventually be replaced by people using their own devices. But there are obstacles to overcome with this and we think it’s probably a couple of generations away from reality. However, we constantly keep abreast of innovation in this field and love the idea of virtual reality films onboard. The possibilities of that are surely endless!
If you’ve been enjoying our onboard entertainment there’s a good chance it’s been through the hands of BaS, Dave and Paul and their Avionics workshop. Over the last 20 years they’ve repaired well over 100,000 items, working tirelessly to make sure you can enjoy the very best entertainment in the sky. Because of their efforts all the laughing, crying and learning that goes on up in the air can continue. It’s about time someone made a movie about them!
The different entertainment systems that we’ve had over the years:
- Phillips Airvision (BE Aerospace)
- Hughes Avicom (Rockwell Collins)
- Panasonic System 2000
- Panasonic System 3000
- Panasonic EX2
- Panasonic EX3.