Future of in-flight entertainment is personal and social
In recent weeks, both the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) have come out with guidelines allowing the use of Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) throughout a flight.
Delta Airlines and JetBlue just took one day to formally allow gate-to-gate use of these devices to their passengers. This is a very exciting development for the world of in-flight entertainment.
Airlines now have a mix of business models to choose from and coupled with in-flight wifi, passengers have a host of options.
We are about to usher in the era of truly personalised in-flight entertainment where passengers can do what they want, when they want, how they want, share with who they want and on whichever screen they want in order to entertain themselves.
The ‘Always Connected, Always ON’ passenger is going to be overwhelmed with quality content at the touch of his fingertips from streaming to locally stored options, from real-time news and sporting events to songs and movies.
In all likelihood, the future passenger would also be in touch with his loved ones and office colleagues even during his flight, joining his family for the evening TV time together or having a beer while watching Monday-night-football with his friends (in-flight, of course, while his buddies are in their favorite joint).
Different entertainment models
Seatback IFEs are no longer the only option to serve entertainment for passengers. We are seeing a rapid evolution in the way entertainment is being served to travellers today.
Based on the business model for the airlines and the different management styles, several different models are in practise today. Different carriers have different philosophies.
a) Bring your own device (BYOD)
This strategy of entertainment would most benefit from regulators opening up the use of personal electronic devices on-board. Most of us today have hours of content loaded onto our laptops, tablets and smartphones.
Given the option to use it gate-to-gate, we are more than happy to entertain ourselves. This is one of the truly personalised forms of entertainment, since we obviously procure content to our preferences.
It has additional weight benefits for airlines which can reduce the wiring and the screen weight requirements that accompany an on-board IFE.
A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation shows savings upwards of $24 million per 200-seat aircraft when on-board IFE are replaced with options for wifi based streaming content directly on traveller’s own devices.
For low cost carriers and most short haul flights, this is evolving into the default entertainment choice. This can be facilitated by in-flight wifi entertainment portals like the Norwegian Air Shuttle.
In Japan, Peach achieves this through a pre-flight content download of entertainment at the airport comprising of free and pay-to-download content.
b) Loan a device
In this model, airlines provide pre-loaded content on a tablet to passengers, for a fee (rent) or free, depending on their ticket price.
WestJet’s tablet rental program at $5.75 per tab, Virgin Australia’s digEplayer at $14 rent per flight and Hawaiian Airlines preloaded iPad for $15 rent per flight are examples of paid version of this model.
c) Seatback in-flight entertainment
This would continue to evolve into different Avatars for some time to come. Limited space around passenger seating and the prospect of providing larger, wider screens serving grander in-flight experience is an obvious choice of strategy for many long haul carriers.
Singapore Airlines recently announced its next generation $150 million KrisWorld which comes with additional USB/HDMI ports for passengers to plug in their own content as well. Emirates in-flight entertainment branded ‘ice’ is a great example of this.
d) Two screen model
Remote controls of traditional seatback in-flight entertainment systems have morphed into second screens for passengers. Passengers can now chat, order an in-flight meal or navigate the flight path while watching the movie on the main screen.
e) Hybrid two screens
There is talk among some airlines for seatback IFEs to be coupled with passenger’s own device using apps, so that the passenger can watch their own content on a larger screen or download airline provided content onto their own device for future play. This is yet to be released into the market.
Each of the above business models comes with its own set of challenges.
Digital Rights Management, Digital Asset Management, revenue sharing with studios and the ability to prevent people from stealing content is a huge risk that airlines have to guard themselves against, especially when providing connected wifi access and streaming content on personal devices.
Similarly, the ability to monitor consumption, ability to provide the same responsive touchscreens like iPads and smartphones, distribution of content across entire fleet of aircraft, compensating passengers with damaged in-flight screens and trying to maximise returns on hardware investments before they become obsolete are the challenges of seatback IFEs.
In fact when I first read the news of $150 million investment of SIA into its in-flight entertainment, the first thought that came to my mind was – “I hope they are planning to write it off in next one year or two” – because by then the new innovations would render their current systems obsolete.
Evolving preferences of passengers is another challenge that airlines have to live up to. In most developed parts of the western world, preference is shifting towards streaming content, as evidenced by the recent closure of all company owned Blockbuster outlets in US.
Value for money and customer service are other expectations that today’s pampered traveller is looking for.
So while most of us are fine with RyanAir’s infamous customer service for cheap tickets, we expect no lesser than five star entertainment when paying substantially higher prices on Business Class travel of Cathay or Japan Airlines.
Value perception is very keen in today’s consumer and with plethora of free/paid options available on personal devices; passengers nowadays only begin to value the in-flight entertainment when they receive something substantially more significant than what they are already carrying in their laptops, tablets, mp3 players and smartphones.
Extending beyond in-flight to in-travel
Airlines have two directions to evolve into – one which only wants to be an origin to destination (airport-to-airport) basic transportation service and the other which wants to become a home-to-home travel partner.
Every time I travel alone on business to a new location, I am not sure of the country I am flying into for the first time.
Even when I am flying to the same destination again, I have doubts and anxieties, perhaps lesser. Worst still, the rigours of business travel do not give me sufficient time to prepare for these before travel as I am preoccupied with the assignment on hand, the business deal that I must clench.
It’s only when I am in-flight, a lot of these uncertainties begin to surface in my mind.
Add to that the troubles of leaving behind a spouse, parents and family, one or another of whom may be sick or in need of my attention and the business success that I must achieve at my destination.
I am forever looking for a travel partner, someone who could just ensure that all my travel needs would be taken care of. One simple example is the excessive roaming charges I incur, especially with prepaid SIM cards becoming harder to procure upon arrival in many developed countries due to security concerns.
Companies like Handy in Hong Kong, Tourist pads in Singapore and Matrix in India are tapping this huge market potential of helping customers stay connected while in-travel – an area I believe airlines have a significant role to play.
In context of entertainment, it means that we are at the crossroads where airlines should look at enabling my device for connectivity throughout my journey.
Airlines aiming to be the preferred travel partner of the passenger, should at least aim to achieve home-to-home connectivity for passengers, in-flight and on-ground, with virtual concierge apps that have a ready answer for a host of my travel needs.
Personalisation and social sharing
There was a time when I watched movies with my wife on a small laptop screen (that was what I could afford) and now I love watching it on our home theatre system.
One thing that has not changed is I love watching it with her and I love watching what we both like, together.
The other day in my domestic flight I saw a young couple sharing one head-phone each to watch the same movie on a laptop, reminding me of my youth again.
So regardless of the device that it is served on, I would always have higher preference for what I like to watch and better still if I can watch it with my loved ones, tweeting and sharing it on Facebook.
Today even when I am travelling with my wife, we both have to watch the movies separately given the separate headsets and screens. I cannot tell the whole world that I am watching ‘Shawshank Redemption’ for the millionth time when I am lucky enough to find it on a flight (which is almost never).
I cannot watch the latest episode of ‘Dexter’ on my flight while my wife is watching it at home and I obviously cannot share notes on the latest game of basketball with my buddies I hang out with every Sunday while I am in a flight.
Travel is disruptive to my personal and social life. I am not able to do the things that I love to do with people I love to hang out with. The technology to minimise these disruptions is already here and I wish the airlines of the future are planning to introduce them at the soonest.
From footfalls to eyeballs and Facebook walls to share-it-all, the world of content consumption and entertainment has undergone multiple evolution.
Two things which remain constant – I want the entertainment that I like (personalisation) and I want to use entertainment that helps me connect (social sharing) with spouse, friends, colleagues and family.
I wonder who would be the first one to make that possible for me – in-flight.
NB2: Laptop user image via Shutterstock.
Special Nodes is the byline under which Tnooz publishes articles by guest authors from around the industry.