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A couple of months ago Finnair announced the launch of the new A350 aircraft, making it the first European airline to start operating the model. We are glad to be able to say that the new aircraft will display some of our finest work yet.
These new A350s are – for example – equipped with WiFi and a satellite connection. Through the WiFi, passengers will have access to an in-flight portal which serves customers content without the need to purchase an internet connection.
On November 18th, passengers flying with the A350 could start reading Yle (Finnish Broadcasting Company Yleisradio, Yle for short) news articles from the portal. The latest news articles are updated to the aircraft every 10 minutes over the satellite connection.
So, are we talking about a web page which is updated every 10 minutes? Allow us to explain.
Opening up the ecosystem: a two-and-a-half year journey
In 2013 Reaktor started creating the ‘facelift’ for the in-flight entertainment systems (IFE) for Finnair’s existing long-haul fleet (Airbus A330/A340). Back then the aviation entertainment/connectivity business was a very closed and tightly controlled business.
Software was sold as a product, and airlines were left with only limited options to customize this onboard platform/service. As a rule, airlines did not have the opportunity to develop services to be used on their own aircrafts.
This is something Finnair wanted to change. They wanted to have full control over their passenger experience.
Back then, we began discussions with Finnair’s IFE vendor Panasonic Avionics. Our goal was to open up the ecosystem. A path which would allow Finnair more freedom in creating better services for their customers over the long term. For that IFE facelift project, we ended up just ‘reskinning’ the old system but Finnair had penetrated the market as the first airline to do their own software development. The idea of a more open ecosystem had sparked much discussion within the industry.
A second chance
In late 2014, we started creating the new IFE and inflight portal for Finnair’s new Airbus A350 which would fly its first long-haul route to Shanghai on November 2015. Development for the systems started from a clean slate and openness was a key driver from the beginning.
Persistence with this agenda, continuous and lengthy discussions, technical meetings and negotiations eventually led us to the point where we were allowed to run our own node.js-server on the inflight servers of the aircraft.
It may sound like a small deal in the technology world but it was a very big moment in aviation. Running our own server was critical for the features we created for the entertainment system; such as showing the main events and stages of the flight during the flight, showing the meal options in the economy seats, synchronizing the IFE backgrounds with the aircraft cabin mood lighting, and so forth.
All of this was made possible by our ability to create services end-to-end, fetching Finnair’s operational data from the ground via the satellite, and serving this data to the user interface on the seatback displays and the in-flight portal. A selection of inflight elements were also made controllable by the Finnair crew via their own tablet computers.
Agile collaboration with Yle – a feature from scratch to production in two weeks
During the summer of 2015 there had been a few idea-rich discussions between Finnair and Yle about the possibility of bringing live news content to the A350. Later in the autumn, the discussions led to an agreement to have the news on the first flight to Shanghai.
On the morning of 3rd of November Mikko Nylen (Reaktor, developing the API’s at Yle) and the Yle representatives (developers, content specialists, ux and visual designers) joined Reaktor’s team at Finnair’s HQ in Vantaa. After reaching a common understanding of what needed to be achieved, we worked for two consecutive weeks seamlessly as one team (both on our own premises and via Slack).
By the 18th of November we had created a release version of the portal which was loaded onto a USB stick and installed on the aircraft later that day. At the same time, we also switched our ground servers to start using the production APIs from Yle. News would now be available to passengers on the next flight to London Heathrow, due for take-off later that evening.
This was a great moment from another perspective as well: we witnessed the result of a successful collaboration between two major Finnish companies – both of whom Reaktor have had a relationship with for years.
The intensity of this collaboration hit its peak-moment on the 19th of November when our entire development team as well as Finnair’s project members flew to Frankfurt and back. An issue was spotted mid-flight, discussed over Slack with Yle (located in Helsinki) and fixed immediately. The fix was visible whilst airborne, 10 minutes later when the latest news were updated to the aircraft.
End-users will benefit from this openness
The journey started two and a half years ago, with Finnair’s clear vision to create services for aircraft with the same agility as for any other channel, like mobile and web. After a long-term strategy which was successfully executed, the aircraft is now just another effective touchpoint for Finnair’s services.
So, why is this such a big deal? This all will enable a myriad of possibilities for end-users. They will finally reap the benefits of more relevant services, during a key journey touchpoint that up until now, had been ‘disconnected’ from the overall experience.