APEX in Profile: Darrel Chua


Image via Darrel Chua

Darrel Chua
IFEC Consultant
FTS and Aerodream

Darrel was an IFE engineer for Singapore Airlines before relocating to the US to work for Panasonic Avionics. After moving back to Singapore, he started eFlyte, IFE Services, Envee (China) and later managed the FTS Asia headquarters. Currently, he is the honorary secretary of the Singapore Institute of Aerospace Engineers and also the organizer of the Free and Open Source Singapore Meetup.

Years in the industry: 26+
Favorite airport: SIN (but of course)
Now listening to: Anything jazz
Favorite aircraft: A380
The future of flight will be: Connected

As honorary secretary of the Singapore Institute of Aerospace Engineers, you have devoted nearly 30 years to bolstering Singapore’s reputation as a preferred aviation hub. How has the landscape shifted since you first entered the scene?
I got drafted into the Singapore Institute of Aerospace Engineers in 1992, when I was a young intern engineer at Singapore Airlines. My mentor back then was Mr. Lim Yeow Khee, who later became my boss in the in-flight entertainment department and is now the president at the institute. I only took over as honorary secretary at the end of last year and had to modernize operations. The aerospace industry has certainly become more competitive, with more emphasis on bottom line and profitability, but it is still a very niche, closed circle. It’s very difficult for smaller innovative players to break in. With new technologies like AI, machine learning and robotics advancing at such a furious pace, we as an industry need to do better at embracing these technologies, bringing in innovations from outside the industry to level up our game.

What evolution in IFEC trends has shaken up the industry the most?
For me, one of the biggest evolutions must be moving from the analog videotapes to fully digital audio-video on demand (AVOD) at the seat. I still remember implementing airline procedures for crew to operate the bank of 21 Hi8 video players, loading videotapes and cleaning tape heads. I was fortunate enough to be part of the industry movement that made this happen. Nowadays, everyone who travels takes it for granted that AVOD just works, but it was a concerted effort by many amazingly talented individuals.

You have founded many startup companies. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from being self-employed?
Leaving the comfort zone of a large company to venture out on your own can be an intimidating, life-changing decision. I had to equip myself with knowledge in sales, HR, finance, etc. The most important lesson I learned is not to lose faith when dealt failures. Statistics have shown that more than 90 percent of startups will fail. Learning to get back up and soldier on is part and parcel of running startups.

Out of all the products you have engineered or overseen, which one was the least successful?
I had to dig deep into my mental database for the least successful product, but one thing that came to mind was the in-flight fax machine. This was still the old-style analog fax machine transmitting over the Inmarsat Aero-H satellite service at 10.5 Kbps. The problem was that if the page was not fully faxed over and got stuck in transmission, the passengers wouldn’t want to pay the $15 per page. Not only did business-class passengers have to endure the beeping noises, the cabin crew also tore their hair out while repeatedly trying to fax pages to the ground. Removing the in-flight fax machines was one of the best decisions we took at that time.

What offering are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the EASA STC (Supplemental Type Certification) awarded to the FTS wireless IFE system on Myanmar Airways International A319 aircraft. It was my biggest challenge ever to take a new wireless IFE system (from a new startup) throughout the whole process from design, marketing, sales, certification, installation and eventually commercial launch. There were many aspects, like the STC application process, hardware engineering and aircraft installations that I had not dealt with before.

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your business?
The coronavirus pandemic has certainly wreaked havoc on the aerospace industry, and like many of my friends in the business, I am also adversely affected. To put things in perspective, I was traveling every month throughout my career, but in 2020, my only trip was to LAX in January to attend APEX TECH. FTS also had to scale back on operations and expenses to focus on its core market. The bright side is that I got to spend more quality time with family and have attained Iron Chef-level culinary skills. To better myself during this free time, I started Aerodream to research emerging technologies beyond the IFEC industry, like AI, machine learning and robotics.

“APEX in Profile: Darrel Chua” was originally published in the 10.4 November/December issue of APEX Experience magazine.