Matsushita turns to Hollywood for unique mix of IFE content

 - January 30, 2007, 10:55 AM

Matsushita Avionics Systems might not be a company with which many people are intimately familiar, but chances are most of the business aviation industry will know quite a lot about MAS soon enough. A top supplier of in-flight entertainment systems to the airlines for more than 25 years, the Bothell, Wash.-based cabin avionics supplier this year is making its first serious foray into the business aviation IFE market.

What’s got people talking about MAS is a plan by the company to strike deals with movie studios that will allow buyers of its IFE systems to show first-run films aboard corporate aircraft. The studios are currently putting out about 10 films a month, so the idea would be to provide 10 movies to aircraft operators a month. These wouldn’t necessarily be the movies that are opening at the local mall megaplex this weekend, but aircraft operators would be able to get their hands on the films before they make it to DVD.

As a subsidiary of Panasonic that draws on the R&D efforts of its parent, MAS is positioned to make inroads into the corporate aviation market with the company’s recently introduced eFX in-flight system, an IFE package that designers say is tailor-made for the cabins of business aircraft.

Combining innovations in digital audio and video technology with the reliability of its commercial IFE systems, MAS could well have a winner on its hands. The major features of eFX are airborne Ethernet connectivity, live text news updates, digital audio/video content and iXplor, a worldwide moving-map program that presents digitized satellite images down to one-square-meter resolution.

MAS executives said eFX will offer a variety of seat and bulkhead display options, as well as so-called Smart Display touchscreens that can combine display and command functions from an integrated panel. Additional support units and optional file servers will offer expandability to support larger seating configurations or extra storage of content–and a satellite-direct TV offering from MAS could also make it on board business airplanes one day soon.

Alan Pellegrini, senior vice president of marketing for MAS, said the company’s business model over the past quarter century has been dictated by a desire to bring the best products and services it knows how to the marketplace. “That commitment is what we’re bringing to the business aviation market,” he said.

To make the jump into the business aviation IFE market, MAS has hired industry veteran Kerry Farrish as director of the new unit. Farrish most recently served with the Baker Electronics subsidiary of Honeywell, and before that was senior director of sales at Airshow, where he headed the business aviation sales efforts of moving maps, cabin-management systems and airborne satellite-direct TV systems.

Farrish will now be responsible for overseeing the company’s entry into the business aviation IFE market, no small task considering the market is all but controlled by Honeywell and Rockwell Collins, two of the industry’s biggest names.

MAS has already installed its first eFX IFE systems aboard Boeing 757s flown by Song, Delta Air Lines’ new low-fare carrier. To mark the occasion, MAS and Song in November opened a small storefront on Prince Street in New York’s Greenwich Village where passersby were allowed to sample the electronics (such as satellite TV, moving maps and video games) that will be standard accoutrements on the airline’s all-coach aircraft.

Song began in-flight testing of the new MAS eFX system on one airplane at the end of October, offering passengers 24 free channels of live satellite broadcast TV programming and all-digital broadcast audio programming, as well as a multi-player video game where passengers compete against each other.

Over the next few months, MAS will be installing eFX on the rest of Song’s fleet, allowing passengers to access the system on their own personal video monitors. Beginning in the second quarter, additional features and technology will be added, including on-demand pay-per-view movie programming, individually customizable playlists of digitally streamed MP3 audio and the interactive iXplor moving-map program.

Farrish said MAS decided to enter the business-aviation market because the systems it has been developing are now small enough to fit in the typical private jet. eFX is scalable down to a single 4-MCU box, which is about the same size as a typical Airshow server. The initial target niche for MAS will be large business jets, such as Gulfstreams,  and bizliners, said Farrish.

A proprietary system controller is at the heart of eFX, he explained. It allows digital content to be downloaded to the IFE system using a laptop computer. Additional servers and removable hard drives can be purchased (all of it built by Panasonic) to expand the capacity of the system, which starts at about 20GB.

Farrish said MAS plans to begin shipping the first non-airline eFX systems in the next few months. So far, he said, head-of-state aircraft have been the top candidates for the system. The company plans a stronger marketing push later in the year, he added, after a successful presence at last fall’s NBAA Convention in Orlando, Fla., generated interest in the new venture.