Jetstar new iPad in-flight entertainment system has been over a year in the making and is the world's largest such deployment of the Apple tablet.
But exactly how does the Jetstar iPad system work – what lurks under the covers and behind the scenes?
Australian Business Traveller talked with Michael Reilly, Chief Operating Officer of Stellar Inflight, the company behind the project.
Jetstar uses a standard off-the-shelf iPad 2 with Wi-Fi and 64GB of storage running iOS 5, but with one 'magic ingredient' – a Jetstar app created by Bluebox Avionics, a UK-based software developer for the aviation industry.
"The Bluebox application is designed to look and feel like a regular iPad application" explains Reilly, "but you're not actually going through the Apple home screen or the Apple menu system" because when Jetstar flight attendants hand out the iPads to each passenger they're already running Bluebox.
In the interest of making the system as user-friendly as possible, Stellar went as far as it could within Apple-approved limits.
"We wanted to avoid passengers getting into the settings application because they could then turn on things like wifi and bluetooth," Reilly explains. "There's regulatory issues there we have to comply with in terms of interference with navigation systems and other safety aspects."
However, as Reilly notes, "as part of their enterprise licencing agreement, Apple does't allow you to delete the native applications on the iPad, such as the settings and contacts application. You could only remove those through a jailbreak, and of course a jailbreak is not a solution for an enterprise environment and was never considered."
"The only way around that was to dump those apps into a folder and cover the home button so passengers couldn't get to them", he says, which is why the special iPad 2 case used by Jetstar covers the iPad's home button (and also the standard Apple 30-pin connector).
"But on top of that, the reality is that all of the control that the passenger needs resides within the Bluebox application, so there's no need for them to go anywhere else anyway."
The single-app model also helps to keep the system stable, Reilly points out. "They're interacting with one application and that's it. They can't multitask, they can't use multiple apps, and they can't put the device under any stress that might make it crash. It's very stable."
And if it crashes? "In all the testing that we've done, although I can't say that it's a hundred percent guarantee, we couldn't really find a way to crash the app on a regular basis, especially given what's available to the passenger. So the likelihood of that happening is very low. But if it does happen, that's part of the cabin crew training. They're able to remove the device from the case and perform a reset if necessary."
Of course, the single-app model will mean that some of the iPad's accessibility functions for passengers with visual and auditory disabilities may not work.
Reilly's team have tried to get around this: "There are settings inside the Bluebox application that can give a little bit more functionality to disabled users. Also, Jetstar has a policy of having at least one film with closed captions, which helps hearing impaired people."
Reilly admits that this isn't entirely satisfactory, but counters, "there are plans in view for updates to the application which will bring in more functionality for passengers with disabilities."
All of the content, which Reilly says is encrypted and secured on the device," actually sits inside the Jetstar app" rather than existing on the iPad's file system.
So how much content is loaded onto the 64GB iPad? "We try not to have a content set larger than about 53GB," Reilly says.
"For launch there are eight Hollywood movies. There'll always be a minimum of eight, but they'll increase at times of the year like Christmas and school holidays, wherever there is a particular demand for more content."
The mix is carefully selected too: "We have two Australian movies and two Japanese movies because Jetstar has quite a strong Japanese demographic. There's about 25 TV programs of mixed genre: drama, comedy, documentary, children's TV. That's a mix of Australian and international programming."
Apart from things to watch, "there's about 50 CD albums, there's about 25 music videos, 5 digital magazines covering titles from Rolling Stone to Australian Woman's Weekly to Madison, Cosmopolitan, those sort of magazines."
Children on your flight will also be kept occupied (and hopefully quiet) by "digital books designed for primary school aged children and five games in the first release. There will be 12 by January because there has to be some re-engineering done."
"It's less on security for the games, more for functionality: removing multiplayer and online access components of the games. More games will be rolling out in the next couple of months," Reilly promises.
Another novel aspect of Jetstar's iPad system is the case which encloses the tablet.
"The case was designed by an engineering firm who put forward some design ideas to Jetstar, and Jetstar approved the particular design," Reilly says.
"Fragility becomes a bit of an issue, so we designed the ruggedness of the case in mind as the best possible compromise between the attractiveness of the iPad, the power requirements of the battery, and ruggedness."
As previously noted this case deliberately covers the iPad's home button and connector, but it also includes a battery to boost the iPad's uptime between charges to over 20 hours – a maximum requirement set as being able to do a Sydney-Honolulu flight and back.
Also built into the case is a 3.5mm stereo jack which plugs into the iPad's own headphone jack, in turn disabling the speakers.
"That was a deliberate design because you can't use the speakers, obviously, to avoid disruption to fellow passengers" Reilly explains, "so you have to plug a set of headphones in on top of that jack."
While Jetstar provides headphones as part of the rental fee, because the case employs a regular 3.5mm stereo jack you can use your own noise-cancelling headphones or any other stereo headphones.
There's also a kickstand so you can prop the iPad on your tray table, and as part of what Reilly calls the "second phase" of the Jetstar iPad project, there's "a hook system for the top of the seats, which we're looking into at the moment."
About John Walton
Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.