American Airlines’ newest planes, the 787-8s rapidly joining the fleet this year, come with the newest in-flight entertainment and connectivity systems provided by Panasonic, eX3 and eXConnnect. And getting the “latest and greatest” installed on board can mean one of two things: A great passenger experience with lots of new features or a buggy system which frustrates users and leaves them wanting for more. On board the inaugural 787 flight last week it was, unfortunately, more of the latter than the former.
Perhaps my biggest complaint about the system is limited visibility of the screens. This is not a software bug or something easily fixed, unfortunately. For business class passengers the screens must be stowed during take-off and landing. That is common in the herringbone-esque configuration which AA has for its seats but it also means more time during a flight where passengers cannot use the screens effectively. At least it is only the first and last few minutes of the flight, though a long taxi delay would also be a nice time to watch a movie and that’s not an option with this configuration.
For economy class passengers the situation is the opposite; during take-off and landing all seats must be upright so the screens are readily visible. During flight, however, if the passenger in front reclines the screen visibility is reduced as it angles down with the reclined seat. It you also recline or happen to be short enough the viewable angle can remain OK but for me it was a problem if the passenger in front reclined.
Those are mechanical systems and, especially for the business class seats, I understand the constraints driving the decision. There were other bugs in the system, however, which are a bit harder to comprehend.
One nice feature about the system is that each screen is individually controlled so it can crash and reboot on its own without affecting other passengers. I know this mostly because I watched my screen reboot several times during the flight and my neighbor continued to watch her movie. Each time mine crashed I was in one of the “chat rooms” on the IFE system, trying to communicate with the Panasonic engineers who were on the flight monitoring the systems. Perhaps it was because there were 50+ people in the chat but the touch screen would become sluggish, with a significant lag in the typing recognition, and then eventually crash the screen and reboot. Were I not trying to get in touch with the engineers I probably would never use that feature of the IFE so maybe it isn’t a “real” issue, but I have seen it in action on other inaugural flights with fewer issues so I know it can work, albeit with 20-30 users, not 50+.
A promo video from Panasonic for the eX3 in-flight entertainment kit
The internet connectivity was pretty much a bust. I managed to get a couple tweets out once I finally got connected, a process which took 30-45 minutes, but nothing more than that. A couple others I spoke with had better experiences but a conversation I had with one of the systems engineers on board revealed that fewer than half the passengers who connected to the system on the plane were able to connect beyond the portal to consume content online.
It is easy to blame the issues on the volume of users but the numbers I heard – about 120 devices authenticated to the system – are not particularly high when compared to reports from other vendors running on narrow-body planes or even some other Panasonic installs. Perhaps I should be happy I even had a chance to try the system at all; one industry insider suggested he’d heard rumors that it simply wasn’t working yet on the American planes.
Panasonic deferred to American Airlines regarding the issues and an airline spokeswoman issued a relatively generic statement about the troubles, “We’re still working with Panasonic to see what we can do to improve the speed and bandwidth.” Based on the comments of the engineer on board I don’t actually think it is an issue with the capacity of the satellite link to the plane so much as an issue with some of the on-board systems, but maybe that’s just me being confused based on the very off-the-cuff conversation with the engineer. But similar systems are running on similar planes and doing so successfully. Maybe this was just a bad day for the Panasonic kit or it really hasn’t been stress-tested to this high usage level. But something was definitely amiss there.
Connectivity pricing was $12 for 2 hours, $17 for 4 hours and $19 for the full flight. Those numbers somewhat make sense when the plane is on an intercontinental route but very little sense on the short hop from Dallas to Chicago.
The movie selection was broad and the on-screen navigation was reasonable, putting aside the slowness issues previously mentioned. The moving map worked great and that’s often where I spend much of my time in the IFE system so that’s good news for me.
Despite the mostly negative comments here I think the eX3 platform is a good system and that it will be reliable under normal use cases. I have to believe that the bugs in the portal redirect system will be worked out and that the connectivity will eventually work as expected and scale appropriately. But I also wonder a smidgen about the testing process and what the vendors are doing to simulate that many connections on board. Are the simulations sufficient to replicate real-world experiences? Maybe we need more flying potatoes to improve the simulations, though I don’t really think signal propagation was the issue.
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