In-flight services – Now that’s entertainment

In-flight entertainment is entering a new era. Gone are the days of overhead screens and limited choice, airlines are now exploring new avenues to improve passengers’ on-board experience. David Bicknell examines the impact of Internet technology and looks at what the future holds

Let your imagination run riot, and imagine what you could be doing on long-haul flights in the future.

Well, depending on how vivid your imagination is, there’s a reasonable chance of it coming true. Boeing may have recently scrapped its in-flight high-speed broadband Connexion service due to a lack of interest from leading airlines, because they preferred a cheaper, cellular option. But that doesn’t mean to say the next few years won’t offer exciting times when it comes to the development of in-flight entertainment systems. 

Henry Harteveldt, vice-president and principal travel analyst at the Forrester Research group, believes in-flight entertainment is set for a dramatic change.

“Boeing’s move to shut Connexion notwithstanding, in-flight web access will be as common as jet engines on aircraft in the next three to five years. The same will go for texting/SMS, though mobile phone calls will reflect local cultures. That means it won’t happen in the US, but may well do in Europe and Asia.

“What I also see happening is airlines offering free or reduced rate Internet access to a limited gateway of vendors in exchange for advertising or a portion of the sales generated by passengers on board their flights. Mobile will become increasingly important to the flying experience – check-in, flight changes, baggage delivery status etc – and I also see airlines signing deals for customers to pay for on-board purchases via their mobiles.”

Many carriers have come to view in-flight entertainment as a key element of the on-board experience. Delta’s low-cost ‘Song’ unit, now folded into the parent company, offered pre-ordering and pre-paying for meals, and other airlines may also use the same model to sell items such as pillows/blankets, amenity kits, etc, while at the same time generating revenues.

“In-flight Internet access may even allow airlines to stop providing ‘canned’ entertainment,” suggests Harteveldt. “In other words, the passenger selects what entertainment she wants via the Internet. This will save airlines the weight of the audio/video hardware, as well as the associated wiring into the seats, and the licensing fees.”

According to Dave Tharp, senior manager, development and logistics, on-board media for Virgin Atlantic, airlines have already seen a number of technology shifts: from overhead screens to in-seat video, the jump to interactive media, then from analogue to digital audio/video on demand systems.

He says: “The future is inextricably linked to advances in connectivity. Broadband is everywhere and the rapid adoption of portable electronic devices such as mobile phones/BlackBerrys rolls on. For airlines, the question is about what to adopt and when to jump.

“One thing is certain, in-flight entertainment systems will offer increased storage capacity, greater interactive functionality and higher-quality audio and video. The challenge is to not only deliver on these enhancements but to deliver ever more reliable systems that are less prone to failure in the harsh aircraft cabin environment.

Delta has a similar view. A spokeswoman says: “Many interesting new technologies are becoming available for use on board passenger aircraft, and the possibilities are exciting. At Delta, we listen to our customers to determine what type of technology they want on board in the future, including Internet access.”

Delta’s new Panasonic eFX digital on-demand entertainment system, available to BusinessElite clients on Delta’s direct flights from Kiev to New York, already has the capability for accessing the Internet, but has yet to be activated, Delta says, “because of a need to explore technical and financial issues”.

Indeed, Panasonic is already planning to offer its own broadband service to work in aircraft fitted for Connexion, offering speeds of 12Mbps/3Mbps compared to the 5Mbps/1Mbps that Boeing offered.

Paul Dawson, head of interactive media at user interface specialist Conchango, which has worked with companies such as Virgin and Vodafone, believes much more can be done to get passengers’ pulses racing.

“The current state of in-flight entertainment has been reliant on bespoke systems. They have been hard to change and expensive to manage, built by only a couple of manufacturers and hampered by a weight issue and the availability of computing power on board. And because the systems are bespoke, there is little room for interactivity or user-friendly front-ends.”

To address that, Dawson would like to see the development of new interfaces based on new application development suites such as Adobe’s Flex 2, or, once it’s available in 2007, Microsoft’s new Vista operating system.
“Vista is particularly interesting. The Windows Presentation Foundation offers an easier way to render 3-D graphics, and combine 3-D content with video, animation and layout to create a more exciting user experience.”

Whichever in-flight entertainment system is used, it must service the needs of different travellers: a 65-year-old American who just wants to watch films; a 15-year-old Playstation or X-Box fanatic who wants to play games; and the business traveller who wants broadband access.”

Dawson believes there is no reason why aircraft can’t somehow operate as a moving Wi-Fi point, encouraging travellers to bring their own hardware, i.e. laptops, and save weight and cost for airlines.

The future should see travellers being able to tailor their entertainment online to suit their tastes, ordering their films or playlist of in-flight tracks pre-flight from a library offered by the airline. Or simply send their own playlist to the carrier. And, just like companies such as Blockbuster offer a DVD service on the ground, why can’t this service equally be available in the air?

Eventually, consumers should be able to use their own devices on the flight to amuse themselves, exchanging data with their iPods and smartphones, or even viewing their digital camera photos through the in-flight entertainment system. By using online services such as Google or passengers could plan their route out of the airport from their seat.

Dawson believes the next generation of aircraft such as the Airbus A380, the self-styled but beleagured ‘cruise ship of the sky’, will offer the prospect of plasma screens and virtual reality to offer new experiences. Already, he suggests, it is realistic to think the A380 could have a nightclub, a gym and a cinema.

Dawson believes a new era in in-flight entertainment requires work from companies such as Conchango to spice up the current limited bespoke systems, which are decidedly user-unfriendly.

“It’s about designing an interface that understands what the user is trying to do. We would love to work with companies such as Panasonic, Virgin and Microsoft to bring in-flight entertainment out of the 1980s and up to date.”

What can you do on board today?

Virgin Atlantic is to begin providing passengers with live text news throughout their flight. The up-to-date service from Sky News will be available on all aircraft equipped with the V:Port in-flight entertainment service, which offers 300 hours of video and audio on demand.

Delta currently offers customers in BusinessElite a new digital entertainment system, available on demand, boasting more than 20 first-run and popular classic movies, a variety of TV programmes, a broad range of music, video games and in-seat laptop power outlets.

By using MP3 programming, customers can create their own music playlists from more than 1,600 songs. For the summer, Delta even introduced cocktails, including an aptly named Mile High Mojito.

What would you like to do on board tomorrow?

* Go to the gym
* Or the disco
* Or the widescreen cinema
* Edit your digital camera images on the way home – and send them off for printing
* Surf the web on super fast broadband
* View the films you ordered online
* Play interactive games with fellow passengers
* Plan your route out of the airport – or to dinner – via the web
* Answer your e-mail – live
* Listen to your iPod and download new tracks/albums from iTunes while in-flight
* Watch a live sports game
* Quaff another Mile High Mohito cocktail

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