The Flying Penguin: Linux In-Flight Entertainment Systems

If you’ve used an in-flight entertainment system, known in the airline industry as an “IFE,” to watch movies, listen to music, or order food lately, chances are it used Linux as an operating system.

You might not know that Linux is the operating system behind what you see on your screen, but it probably is. United, Delta, Qantas, Emirates, Virgin America, Aeromexico, Air New Zealand, and many other airlines all use versions of Linux-based IFE software.

The Benefits of Simplicity

Linux is particularly suited for in-flight entertainment because it’s simple, not weighed down by accompanying programs, and easily adaptable to many environments.

“In the airline world, they have to optimize for a different set of priorities than you do in a desktop space,” Kris Stevens, CEO of CoKinetic, a software company that markets an IFE system called “AirPlay,” told LinuxInsider. “Linux is very important in that world.”

AirPlay, which was launched by CoKinetic in 2005, is predominantly a Linux-based system, but CoKinetic also produces versions for Microsoft and Mac operating systems. Linux, however, works particularly well in the airline environment because it is a flexible operating system that requires computers to be low-weight, low-heat, and pared-down. Versions of AirPlay are run on Virgin America, Emirates, United, and Air New Zealand.

“Linux gives engineers a great deal of control,” Stevens said. “They can configure it however they want.”

Have a Beer With That Video Game

AirPlay pulls together many different programs from different parts of the plane and lets passengers access them in a seamless, easy-to-navigate fashion.

With Virgin America’s Red system, which CoKinetic developed in partnership with Panasonic Avionics, for instance, passengers can use a touch-screen food menu to place meal orders from their seats, and flight attendants can access these orders on their own computer monitors. Using a handset and the touchscreen computer, passengers can also order on-demand films, chat seat-to-seat, play video games, watch live TV, and access interactive Google Maps.

“It is a full-service entertainment portal at every seat-back that is two to three generations ahead of anything in the domestic skies,” Abby Lunardini, Virgin America’s Director of Corporate Communications, told LinuxInsider. “There has been an overwhelmingly positive response, and in fact, Virgin America has won every major travel award in its first year, from Conde Nast to Travel + Leisure, and the Red system is a cornerstone of the experience.”

On Emirates, passengers can choose from hundreds of movies, plug in their USB devices, and access e-mail and SMS messages all at once.

“It’s a unifying technology,” Stevens said. “We’re pretty much on the lips of everyone that’s buying in-flight entertainment systems.”

The Future Is Now

Connectivity, including Web browsing and e-mail capability, is set to be the next major advance in the IFE world. Some airlines have just begun to offer this kind of connectivity in flight, and others will soon be launching it. Passengers have come to expect instant Internet access at all times, and airlines are working to provide them with it, Theresa Yeoh, a public relations manager with Panasonic Avionics, LinuxInsider.

“From communicating by email to simply browsing the Web or reading more about the destination of their flight, passengers armed with laptops, PDAs, Blackberries, and cellular devices want the convenience of accessing their e-mail and the Internet just as they would from a home, office, or any place on the ground,” Yeoh said. “The vision of broadband connectivity and its role in expanding IFE platforms on aircraft is about to become a reality.”

The adoption of Linux by the airline industry reflects a larger trend across industries to make use of the operating system.

“Linux is widely used across many different industries,” Scott Sharkey, a Linux consultant and president of Gahanna, Ohio-based Linux Unlimited, told LinuxInsider. “Google’s entire system is Linux-based, and large databases are running on Linux-based systems in many corporate applications. Many ISPs run Web server farms based on Linux, and most e-mail flowing over the Internet passes through at least one and often several Linux-based systems. The Internet would likely not exist as we know it without Linux. “

In short, Linux and its applications are here to stay, both on the ground and in the air.

It’s something to think about next time you’re watching a movie, ordering a cocktail, and sending an e-mail at an altitude of 25,000 feet.

Vivian Wagner

Vivian Wagner has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. Her main areas of focus are technology, business, CRM, e-commerce, privacy, security, arts, culture and diversity. She has extensive experience reporting on business and technology for a variety of outlets, including The Atlantic, The Establishment and O, The Oprah Magazine. She holds a PhD in English with a specialty in modern American literature and culture. She received a first-place feature reporting award from the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and is the author of Women in Tech: 20 Trailblazers Share Their Journeys, published by ECT News Network in May 2020. Email Vivian.

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