[Update] Qantas Flies the Jailbreak Skies, Offers iPads for In-Flight Entertainment

Australia’s Qantas joined the ranks of technology-forward airlines like Jetstar when it began a trial run of its new “Q-Streaming” in-flight entertainment system, which will place Apple iPads in the hands of all economy and business passengers on one of its Boeing 767 planes.

The iPad-sporting plane will be used for several routes, from the shorter Sydney-Melbourne-Brisbane flight to Transcontinental coast-to-coast services. iPads will be available in the seat-back pockets of all of the plane’s 254 seats, so everyone who boards the plane will have a chance to try out the new in-flight entertainment.

According to Alison Webster, who is the Qantas Executive Manager for Customer Experience, the iPads will be “locked down.” The tablets will bypass the typical Apple home screen and will boot right into the Q-Streaming app, which will prevent sticky fingers since the iPad can’t be used away from the aircraft.

A Q-Streaming app that’s loaded onto the iPad is able to act as a front-end for on-demand content which is sent from a wireless network on the aircraft, which is technology that was created by Lufthansa Systems for their BoardConnect platform, which was also adopted by Virgin Australia and is set to debut in 2012.

While iPads as in-flight entertainment makes for a compelling story, the subtext in the wording is what’s really interesting. Is Apple allowing Qantas to run special firmware that locks the iPad and boots into a specific app, a feat that’s not normally available?

Or are Qantas’ in-flight entertainment iPads jailbroken, in order to “lock” the iPads? Without a hack, it’s impossible to completely disable Apple’s firmware recovery failsafes, which may indicate that Qantas is indeed using a jailbreak to enhance the functionality and security of the iPads that it is providing to passengers. [See update below]

Without the lock, passengers would be able to hook the iPad up to a computer, wiping the contents and making it fully functional once again while in-flight, potentially allowing them to walk off the plane with a pilfered tablet. The iPads could, of course, be operating with firmware designed in agreement with Apple, though that sounds unlikely. It’s impossible to know for sure what’s under the hood of those Qantas iPads without direct access to one, but it sure sounds suspect.

If you’re lucky enough to take an Australian flight in the next six weeks, you may get to see one of the in-flight iPads first hand, and if the program is successful, the airline may just equip more of its planes with the tablets. Jailbroken or not, an iPad is better entertainment than the typical tough-to-see TV screens adorning seat backs. Those of you with your own iPads will also be able to use them in-flight with the Q-Streaming app that Qantas plans to make available in the App Store towards the end of the trial.

Update:  After the article was published we received word from Lufthansa Systems that the iPads used in the Qantas Boeing 767 IFE trial were not jailbroken but modified using legally available Apple tools. According to Lufthansa Systems’s Daniel Radandt,  the company used Apple’s enterprise management software to lock the devices to deter theft and also to enable access to the Q-Streaming application mentioned in the article.

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