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New Thales Avionics CEO Banks on Innovation

Dominique Giannoni was hand-picked to pilot Irvine-based Thales Avionics’ next leg of growth and innovation.

The Frenchman, a self-described pragmatic manager and company insider, will be tested right out of the gate as the company launches its latest in-flight entertainment system, which has been four years in the making and cost millions.

The Android-based TopSeries Avant—the system’s fourth generation—took its inaugural flight last month on an Airbus A319 flown by American Airlines, the company’s biggest customer.

“We’ve invested a lot in Avant,” said Giannoni, who was promoted because of prior successes in the aviation and telecom sectors. “The system is flying. We have a number of customers already.”

Giannoni, who’s been with the company for 10 years, became chief executive at Thales Avionics in July, replacing vice president and general manager Alan Pellegrini, who was promoted to president and chief executive of Alexandria, Va.-based sister company Thales USA.

Pellegrini replaced Allan Cameron, who retired after eight years at the helm of U.S operations.

Thales Avionics and Thales USA are units of French aerospace and defense stalwart Thales Group, which had more than $22 billion in annual revenue last year.

Thales Avionics is estimated to control about a quarter of the $2 billion global inflight entertainment market, a segment expected to grow more than 6% annually through 2017, according to Markets & Markets Custom Research Services in India.


Rising Demand

Thales is benefiting from rising demand for in-flight monitors and servers, Wi-Fi connectivity and data storage as airlines look for cost efficiencies while trying to meet passenger expectations of seamless video, TV and audio streaming to smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices.

“We are growing as the market is growing,” Giannoni said.

The company last year signed a deal worth at least $150 million with a major North American carrier widely believed to be American Airlines.

It has about 50 customers, including British Airways, Air France, Qatar Airways, Japan Airlines and most major carriers in China.

The Avant product launch and its initial success led the division to hire more than 100 employees this year, bringing its employee base to more than 1,100 people in Irvine, where it occupies 214,000 square feet at its four-building campus in the Irvine Spectrum.

The surrounding area, which takes in parts of Lake Forest and Irvine between the 405 and the 241 south of the 133, is referred to as the “IFE Triangle” among industry insiders, since much of the industry is based within a five-mile radius.

Nearby Panasonic Avionics in Lake Forest, a unit of Secaucus, N.J.-based Panasonic Corp. of North America, is the market leader, with about $1 billion in annual sales.

The 44-year-old engineer by trade has stressed reliability and scaling during the launch of Thales’ new entertainment system, a feature that’s typically the most complex network on an aircraft, including the airplane’s mechanical system.

Giannoni is also overseeing several initiatives to mitigate connectivity and data storage challenges faced during flight, particularly over large bodies of water, where service often is disrupted due to gaps in satellite feeds.

For instance, the company has begun loading content through a wireless network directly to grounded LAN Airlines aircraft in Chile, eliminating the need for manual updates to its server through a flash drive or other content loader.

“When there is no human interaction, the cost is less,” he explained, “so the risk of error is less.”

Thales tracks every flight that carries its IFE systems from its airline operations center at headquarters, where dozens of staffers can address maintenance issues and monitor performance around the clock from their computers. It constantly upgrades the center, established in 2006, with the latest tracking software in an effort to ensure optimum performance.

The company also is developing next-generation applications for its IFE systems, such as hand gesture controls and eye tracking commands to give passengers a more interactive experience.

“We invest quite a significant amount of money into what is the next big thing,” said Giannoni, who once ran Thales’ underwater systems business for submarines and later its military avionics business. “Our view is that once innovation is mature enough and we feel there’s market demand, we incorporate it within our road map.”

Last month’s annual Airline Passenger Experience Association-International Flight Services Association Expo at Anaheim Convention Center gave an early glimpse into that strategy when Thales introduced its latest moving flight map software and a new passenger survey embedded in the product.

Giannoni was most recently in Bordeaux in southwest France, a major wine-producing region where he ran a Thales factory and the company’s military avionics unit.

He moved to Newport Beach with his family of five when he took his new job. He said he’s getting accustomed to life and business in Southern California, home to the entertainment industry, blossoming startups, fast-moving technology companies and what he described as open-minded executives.

The innovative atmosphere suits the company and him, he said.

“I like the spirit a lot,” he said. “Thales is here because we believe this is right place to develop this business.”

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