A Flying Start: The Association’s Early Days and Its Journey to Becoming APEX


Much has changed over the association’s 40 years! Images: APEX Archives

Throughout its evolution, the Airline Passenger Experience Association has stayed in step with the industry by learning from its past while keeping an eye on its future.

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Since the very first industry-wide gathering of professionals whose job it was to put entertainment on aircraft, the goal has been to bring together airlines and vendors from around the world to discuss collective challenges. The idea came up over lunch at Scandia, in West Hollywood, in 1978. Claus Jensen of Thai Airways International was telling Cindy Tarver and Bill Stewart of Billboard Music In The Air about the need for a forum to discuss emerging in-flight entertainment (IFE) software and hardware solutions, and perhaps form an association, too. “There was no way for the people in in-flight entertainment to get together. There was no forum for it. And so we decided: Wouldn’t it be smarter if we … had an annual get-together, and … exchanged ideas, for the improvement of our industry,” Jensen said in a 1983 issue of the Airline Entertainment Association (AEA) newsletter. Could the association then commission committees to tackle technical issues and publish a newsletter to keep members up to date on those topics? Tarver started thinking. Billboard had just sponsored and produced a series of music-related meetings. Perhaps her company could be convinced to sponsor and produce a convention related to IFE? She was right. So was the timing.

Setting the Scene
Besides the need for IFE folks to meet, there was another catalyst that led to the formation of the association. Riding on the success of an ingenious 8mm cassette-based IFE system that would play on loop and fit conveniently inside a baggage bin, Trans Com, along with some movie studios, entertainment distributors and duplicators, had been hosting an annual, invite-only junket to wine and dine airline representatives. This made them the envy of competitors, especially of Inflight Services and Bell & Howell, which were the other major IFE hardware suppliers of the day. “The competitors started looking at this and thought, ‘Trans Com is stealing our thunder. We need to do something.’ That’s when AEA started – and Trans Com was not invited,” says Jim Snyder, who was with Trans Com (which was acquired by Sony before being absorbed by Rockwell Collins, which is now called Collins Aerospace) and sat on the WAEA Board of Directors from 1995 to 2 006.

View the APEX Timeline: 1979-2019

And so it was decided that Palm Springs, the classic desert getaway of Hollywood A-listers, would be the setting for the first conference on March 18-21, 1979. Speakers from airlines and vendors were drafted for discussion panels, and word about the event traveled by snail mail. That year, about 150 attendees showed up at the International Hotel Resort, including 26 airline representatives and more than 50 vendor companies. The city, however, was hit with unusually cold temperatures that week, putting a wet blanket on the outdoor events. Still, “That first 1979 conference was an outstanding success,” recalled late Avion magazine editor and publisher John N. White, in an article about the early days of the event. He went on to suggest that the atypical weather may even have contributed to casual conversation, resulting in camaraderie among attendees.

“By the second day, there was a general consensus, and indeed a sense of excitement, that the event was a good thing and should be repeated,” says John McMahon, who’s now retired but was with Inflight Services at the time. He was at that first conference and joined the AEA board in 1982 for four years, before returning from 2006 to 2009 (by then he was with Atlas Air Film and Media). There was also the fact that mixing the aviation and entertainment industries was still relatively new. “The airlines were in the transportation business, not show business, so this was alien territory,” he says. By the fourth day, “airline attendees met and decided that this meeting would be best served by becoming a nonprofit organization … that no one vendor should sponsor the event,” Tarver said, in a 1987 issue of the association newsletter.

“The keystone to the success of the association was altruism. Board members were instinctively competitive representatives of their own company, but quickly learned they needed to leave their company badges at the door if they were going to be successful in equally representing all members; and as this culture took hold, so did the credibility and stature of the association.” – John McMahon

With some persuasion from airline delegates, including from White (as Snyder remebers), who was working for Delta Air Lines at the time, Trans Com appeared at the conference in 1983 and put an end to its distributors’ conference in 1999. “In my opinion, the keystone to the success of the association was altruism,” says McMahon. “Board members were instinctively competitive representatives of their own company, but quickly learned they needed to leave their company badges at the door if they were going to be successful in equally representing all members; and as this culture took hold, so did the credibility and stature of the association.”

In November 1979, a group of elected officers met in Chicago to develop the framework and bylaws of the AEA, and a plan was put in place to repeat the event the following year, in Phoenix.

Conference-Going’s Jet Age
For the first several years, the conference maintained the same format. The most acceptable venues were hotel and resort properties that offered meeting rooms, accommodation and catering at affordable prices. Back then, exhibitors would set up a card table and folding chair outside their hotel room and put out pamphlets to promote their products and services. “There were no official appointments, there was no such thing as screenings, there was nowhere to put up any graphical information,” says Michael Childers of Lufthansa Systems, a current APEX board member and stalwart of APEX’s Tech Committee and TECH conference.

Fast-forward to 1985, and AEA is going through growing pains. There is talk of changing the association name to be more encompassing of other aviation sectors and giving it a more global focus. By that time, AEA had five conferences under its belt and “It became clear that the association was just a bit too American in character,” McMahon says. “The opportunity to fix this came when international airlines showed interest in representation on the board of directors.”

In the spring of 1985, AEA president Georg Sahler, of Lufthansa, an avid woodsman and francophile who was
35 years old (21 when he joined the airline and proud to tout his youth), announced in a newsletter that AEA would become the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA). That same year, the conference traveled to its first destination outside the United States: Munich. Sahler explained, “Because we have achieved international standing as AEA, we all agreed that a dramatic and significant name change should be avoided.” This started a loose pattern of conferences that were hosted in the president’s hub city and supported by the airline they worked for. In 1987, David Peterson of Qantas took the conference to Sydney; in 1988, Judy Oldham of Pan Am took the conference to Miami; in 1989, Italo Poli of Swissair took the conference to Basel; in 1991, Mark Horton took the conference to London; and in 1998 (although she was no longer president then), Ruth Rosenbrock helped take the conference to Durban.

The association’s efforts to go international won over attendees, who, as much as they went to the conferences for business, enjoyed being plucked from their day-to-day office lives to participate in an all-expenses-paid trip abroad, where they drank, danced and ate with peers from around the world. But for the association, these trips abroad just didn’t pay off.

Conferences that remained in the US, and in particular Southern California, where many of the companies that booked large booth spaces were headquartered, were profitable; conferences that took place outside the country were not. To maintain some sort of international presence, it was decided that the conference would only travel abroad every few years. But there was little consistency to that plan.

APEX CEO Joe Leader

Breakout Actor
As for the exhibition, it grew from makeshift stands in a hotel hallway to filling an entire convention center. Vendors brought booths that grew bigger in size and budget, and brighter, with lights, airline seats, computers, cabin mockups, tablets and high-tech demonstrations. The association had also outgrown its management, which for years was looked after by a sole, part-time administrative coordinator, John Hayes. In 1986, Fontayne Group was hired to help raise WAEA’s profile. They were followed by SmithBucklin, Association Management Group and, since 2009, global management company Kellen. Looking back at the various management handovers, White wrote, “Added professionalism, strategic planning, membership surveys, member services, the spring workshops, the TV Market, standard-setting technology committees and more all represented great forward steps for the WAEA.”

Around this time, Patrick Brannelly of Emirates, who had been on and off the board of directors since 1997, felt that in order for WAEA to stay relevant, it had to break away from the IFE clique and be more inclusive of the rest of the airline passenger experience industry – in particular of aircraft seating. (Prior to that, in the 1990s, the association had opened the conference up to duty-free vendors, but some members felt they were just taking up more of airline attendees’ precious time.) After Brannelly rejoined the board in 2008, he began pushing for the association to expand its membership and spearheaded its name change to reflect the new direction.

He succeeded in 2010, when the association was renamed Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX). Brannelly made the announcement at a WAEA workshop focusing on aircraft seating, at an Airbus facility in Hamburg, which happened to be on the turf of Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX), a conference that was becoming more visible on the exhibition circuit.

Putting a Face to the Name
These days, the air around the conference, now called APEX EXPO, is different: There’s an urgency to book appointments, pull together marketing materials and press releases and construct elaborate booths. “Back in the day, there was a lot more of everyone getting together, and there was a lot more cross-pollination between the different vendors and competitors,” says David Coiley, vice-president, Aviation, Inmarsat, who first attended the conference in 1993 and also participated on the APEX Technology Committee. “All of a sudden it just became extremely intense, hard work, with fewer opportunities to let your hair down and relax. I think everyone just got a lot more business-focused and was there to sell.”

There was also external pressure coming from other events. A few years ago, some of the vendors were starting to see AIX, which launched in Cannes in 2000 but as of 2002 had relocated to Hamburg, as the event to go to. “APEX was starting to fall by the wayside,” Coiley says. But in 2015, APEX hired its first and current CEO, who made his debut at APEX EXPO in Portland. “Under Joe Leader, things are really building again … with the significant profile and attendance he has secured, the association is doing well.”

“I keep saying to Joe, ‘Do you know the meaning of the word overachieve?’ But he doesn’t.” – Michael Childers, Lufthansa Systems

Leader, a proponent of personalization and biometrics, set out to put APEX on the global stage by giving the association a recognizable face. Ambitious and not camera-shy, Leader has upheld certain values in global discussions involving the airline industry on seat standards, the electronics ban and seatback cameras, bringing APEX to the attention of mainstream media, airlines, their executives and the aviation industry at large. The lack of an airline executive attendance at conferences used to be an issue for members, but Leader has changed that. At the time of printing, 13 airline CEOs are slated to be at APEX EXPO in Los Angeles this year, compared to five last year. “I keep saying to Joe, ‘Do you know the meaning of the word overachieve?’ But he doesn’t,” says Childers.

Over the past few years, APEX has worked and integrated with International Flight Services Association (IFSA), also managed by Kellen and of which Leader is also CEO, and AIX (APEX promotes its event in Hamburg, and AIX holds an offshoot Americas conference at APEX EXPO). APEX has also agreed to terms for the acquisition of Future Travel Experience (FTE), which will help the association maintain an international foothold through FTE’s regional Europe, Middle East and Africa and Asia events. These initiatives have allowed APEX to have a presence in catering, cabin interiors, the airport and beyond, not to mention its work with the Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, International Air Transport Association and others on the regulatory side.

Looking around at competing conferences, there are two things that distinguish APEX from the others, Childers says. “In-flight entertainment is still at our core, and nobody else focuses on content the way we do. And second, there is no other association in this space. Nobody else creates content-delivery specs or best practices for how to measure the efficacy of connectivity on the aircraft. Nobody else goes out to encourage what biometrics to use.”

Forty years ago, conference topics centered on music programing, making a case to manufacture decent headphones and modernizing IFE hardware. Now, the conferences have expanded to include sessions on passport-free travel, aerotropolises, 3-D printing and sustainability. Little did Jensen, Tarver or Stewart know what they were onto.

View the association’s timeline, from 1979 to 2019. 

“A Flying Start” was originally published in the 9.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.