Thales recently opened its new customer experience center in Irvine, California, the hub for the Europe-based group’s in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) with 1,200 employees. The 6,000-sq-m (64,585-sq-ft) building, which represents an investment of more than $50 million, includes show rooms in which airline clients can try new equipment, as well as multiple mini-laboratories for development work.
Between now and the first quarter of 2018, Thales will expand the number of labs available for testing screens and other equipment. “This is truly a strategic investment because until now the process of welcoming clients and testing equipment has been handled in a less structured way,” said Dominique Gianonni, CEO of Thales InFlyt Experience, the group’s IFEC division.
The idea of the new center occurred to Gianonni when he visited Boeing’s 787 delivery center in Everett, Washington. “It is often the CEO of an airline who comes to Irvine in person to chose IFEC equipment, because it’s not only an investment of millions of dollars, but also an essential tool that contributes to the company’s image,” he added.
These days, airlines themselves like to use Thales’s servers and simulation capability to test the IFEC equipment that will go in their aircraft. Some of them have staff on site in Irvine for up to two weeks at a time to verify factors such as the electro-magnetic compatibility of the systems, the shock-resistance and luminosity of the screens, as well as noise levels.
In each of the mini labs, there are dozens of screens on mobile racks that the operators can use for testing systems. In fact, only some of the screens are physically present; many others are simulated by the SimLab tools specially developed by Thales’s engineers in Irvine. Between the real and virtual screens, more than 15,500 devices can be tested in the building. Thales also has a partnership with the University of California-Irvine that allows its computer science students to conduct experiments in realistic conditions.
The creation of the new customer experience center is part of Thales’s pursuit of a goal to become the world’s number one IFEC supplier within four or five years. Today, this sector contributes approximately €800 million ($896 million) to the group’s balance sheet and Thales claims to have between 30 to 35 percent of the market, having equipped some 2,400 aircraft worldwide.
Enhanced Passenger Experience
Thales is looking to tap a growing trend for airlines to offer its passengers the maximum level of in-flight connectivity and entertainment. Last year it won two major contracts to equip the future Boeing 777X fleet of Emirates Airline and also Airbus A350s to be operated by Singapore Airlines.
The manufacturer also has supplied single-aisle airliners, including more than 600 aircraft for JetBlue and United Airlines in the U.S. Their customers can now shop online from their seats, check emails of download movies and TV shows
To boost its competence in the field of in-flight connectivity, Thales acquired Florida-based LiveTV in 2014. In the same year, it launched its Avant portal for Android mobile devices and through this can offer users more than 150 apps.
However, at the same time, the IFEC industry is having to master fast-developing technologies such as big data and cyber security. “In the connected aircraft, we have to be able to guarantee to airlines and their passengers that their personal data will be protected and that the payment system is completely secure as well,” Gianonni said.
To meet these challenges, Thales recently acquired two Silicon Valley cyber security and big data specialists—Vormetric and Guavus. The latter has developed algorithms that allow it to analyze streamed data equivalent in scale to that contained by the U.S. Library of Congress in a single day.
“These acquisitions have boosted the capability of Thales USA, which now has 3,500 people working at 22 sites and generating around $2.2 billion in annual revenues,” said Thales USA CEO Alan Pellegrini. In total, IFEC activity alone supports a total of around 2,000 jobs.
At this week’s Paris Air Show, Thales (Chalet 263, Static B1) will be displaying several new systems and applications. For instance, its exhibit features new tactile screens that can be controlled from a smartphone pointed at the screens like a cursor to select functions. Before leaving for the airport, passengers will be able to register details of their service preferences (e.g. music playlists and meal choices) on their smartphones and then connect from the phone with the aircraft’s IFEC system after takeoff.
Another new offering for airlines is the In-Flyt 360 big data tool that allows them to analyze multiple aspects of their passengers’ profiles, such as age, nationality, and frequent flier status, as well as movie and food preferences. Complementing this function is the new In-Flyt Cloud that stores data allowing airlines to track how their clients are using IFEC options. The system will also contribute to the implementation of predictive maintenance techniques for IFEC equipment and is now being deployed with American Airlines.