The future of in-flight entertainment

NB: This is a guest article by Greg Dicum, co-founder and president of MondoWindow.

Consider the airplane cabin. It’s an unequivocally crucial part of the travel arc and yet, for the most part, it’s a black hole.

Travelers are using all manner of technologies, new and old, before they fly and indeed right up to the gate, but once the airplane doors close and the devices are powered off, they’re off the radar – suddenly reappearing somewhere else a few hours later.

In between, unless they brought a good book, they’re treated to a handful of mediocre movies shown on mediocre equipment. It’s hardly the highlight of the travel experience.

But that’s beginning to change. To those of us involved with in-flight entertainment (IFE), these are exciting times: the model of airline-selected Hollywood movies shown on airline-supplied screens that has dominated IFE for its entire existence (the first regular service was from TWA in 1961, but the first ever in-flight movie was shown in 1921) is on the verge of complete disruption.

Two things are transforming IFE:

1. Passenger-supplied consumer digital hardware

Just take a look at all the equipment people are putting in the X-ray trays at security: laptops, tablets, smartphones–sometimes even two or three devices–are in nearly everyone’s carryons.

All of this hardware is far superior to anything you’ll find built into a seatback, and it’s a huge opportunity from the point of view of airlines: passengers pay for it, maintain it, upgrade it, and passengers suck it up when it won’t work or breaks.

This is more than just a convenience for airlines. IFE systems are the largest single line item in the cost of outfitting a plane, and can easily cost 10 percent of the entire outlay for a new aircraft – $3 million to $8 million.

They’re also heavy (so cost real money to fly around all over the place) and are hopelessly behind consumer technology: by the time equipment is certified and installed, it’s already a couple of years out of date–at the start of its ten year service life.

At the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg last month (it’s OK if you’ve never heard of it — but it’s one of the two big onboard amenity gatherings each year) we saw that a number of different companies are starting to take advantage of this passenger-supplied hardware by marketing IFE systems that stream content wirelessly to passenger devices.

Our favorite is MondoWindow partner TriaGnoSys, but there are also very impressive offerings from Lufthansa Systems and others.

2. Internet connectivity

In-flight internet has been slow in coming – the first consumer product, ConneXion by Boeing, launched in 2004 on Lufthansa but flopped because passengers didn’t have many wifi devices and weren’t quite as addicted to the Internet as we are now.

Plus, these systems require massive capital outlays and lots of difficult engineering (just try and build a communications satellite and put it in geostationary orbit for less than half a billion dollars).

But now in-flight connectivity is coming online in force. Gogo, the leading provider, now serves 1,500 commercial aircraft and is upgrading its network to LTE speeds.

A new generation of satellites from ViaSat and others is going online, promising real global broadband from a host of resellers, including Row44 and Airbus spinoff OnAir, as well as JetBlue partner LiveTV (watch for JetBlue wifi by the end of this year).

So what is next?

Now the question of the complete disruption of in-flight entertainment is one of “when”, not “if”. There will come a time in the not very far future when travel technologists like us will be able to take for granted passenger hardware and broadband connectivity in the airline cabin. I think we’ll see it by the end of 2015 on domestic US flights.

Whenever it happens, it will raise a game changing question for IFE: if passengers can do anything they want on the internet, what will IFE look like?

It certainly won’t look like it does now: if you can spend your entire flight on Facebook, why should the airline waste money licensing a handful of movies on your behalf?

As it is, when was the last time you chose a flight based on what movie was playing? At least you can find out on Kayak or Hipmunk whether or not your flight will have wifi before you book.

To get a speculative glimpse of what IFE will look like in the future, we need to boil down the IFE experience to those elements that are relevant to the very special in-flight use case.

In a nutshell, in-flight is special because passengers are moving from one place to another (aka “traveling”), yet they’re sitting still for several hours limited to whatever they brought with them to pass the time.

I’ve identified only three things that will endure in the new connected IFE world (if you can think of others, please chime in in the comments!):

1. Location services

Many of you will have seen the Rockwell Collins Airshow. That basic map that shows a little cartoon of where your plane is tells you nothing more than where you are and when you are going to get where you’re going. This by itself is enough to make the moving map the most-viewed channel on the great majority of IFE systems.

Why? It’s because the map is the only content that is relevant to one hundred percent of the people on the plane. And it’s constantly changing, encouraging repeat visits.

No matter what changes happen in IFE or the passenger experience, traveling is about moving from one place to another, so the map will always be relevant.

2. In-flight shopping

Think SkyMall and Duty Free. What makes these shopping experiences appealing? And more to the point, what would make them worth considering when you also have Amazon at your fingertips? It’s not price or selection, it’s context: they are available only while you’re in flight.

Not only that, but the delivery of the product is instant (in the case of Duty Free) or very soon (in some SkyMall scenarios).

Combine that with the Internet and the daily deals model pioneered by Groupon and you have powerful in-flight content. And it’s already flying: at the end of last year, Southwest started offering a travel guide in a couple of their destinations (Chicago and Denver) that also includes in-flight-only deals for those cities.

3. On-board social networking

Everyone on board a plane has in common that they are, well, on board a plane coming from the same place and going to the same place at the same time. As people become more and more used to chatting with strangers based on shared circumstances and goals – we now do it all the time on Twitter, for example – bringing this social impulse to the cabin will be a successful way of engaging passengers.

Oh, and look–that’s happening already too! Planely, a Danish company, has devised a platform for on-board social networking. And KLM and others have been experimenting with “Social Seating” features that let passengers choose (or, let’s face it, avoid) seatmates based on social profiles.

Now things get interesting

Okay then, so in the future (on the magical greenhouse-like Airbus concept plane, perhaps), the content and engagement side of flying might just be worth your time. Got it.

But think about this: if passengers can assume they will have broadband on their own devices, why should those remaining in-flight services come from airlines at all?

Each and every consumer electronic device on a plane is pre-configured with the passenger’s existing digital relationships. It has Google cookies, Amazon downloads, Facebook apps, AOL subscription information, and so on.

Those are the companies that are the experts in engaging our minds; the airlines’ job is to move our bodies from one place to another–their role as content curators for passengers has only developed because of technological limitations. And those limitations are crumbling.

Any big consumer-centered digital company, with its hundreds of millions of users, always has a percentage of its users in the air at any moment.

If those users are not cut off from digital services, then it makes sense for big digital companies to offer special versions of their services for existing customers who happen to be flying. (There are a lot of reasons why it makes sense, but the biggest is because when people are in flight, they are at their most valuable as advertising targets.)

Location services, shopping, and social networking are all within the existing capabilities of the digital conglomerates. They do these things better than anyone.

Once they can reach airline passengers reliably, it would be pointless for airlines to try and compete for mindshare–as pointless as trying to fly from one continent to another on Twitter’s little blue wings.

NB: This is a guest article by Greg Dicum, co-founder and president of MondoWindow.

NB2: TLabs Showcase – MondoWindow.

NB3: In-flight overhead screens image via Shutterstock.

NB4: Here is some footage detailing the first in-flight movie referenced above:

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About the Writer :: Viewpoints

A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are those of the author. and do not necessarily reflect those of the author's employer, or tnooz and its partners.



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  1. Mary Kirby

    Harbingers of the demise of embedded seatback inflight entertainment have been prophesying its death for years (including Greg :), but two recent decisions by Lufthansa — for its own fleet and for its new Eurowings subsidiary — have swung the needle firmly back towards “embedded”. See:

  2. Jose

    Does Mondo Window have any commercial self interest in this trend?

    • Greg Dicum


      Yes, MondoWindow is built to take advantage of the trend towards passenger-supplied consumer hardware for IFE consumption.

      Because all content served to passengers’ devices needs to be viewable on those devices, the broadest approach is to make that content work natively inside a web browser.

      That’s exactly what MondoWindow does: it’s a browser-native interactive moving map.


  3. Ahmed

    Perhaps everyone should pay attention to a comment made by CEO Yim Clark of Emirates (airline who has been profitable for 24 Consecutive years) about value of IFE.

    Also who here have flown with a device sitting on their lap or tray table for more than 3 hours and got a tense neck muscles?

  4. Disarm Doors

    Personally, I’ve not encountered an IFE system anywhere that beats the Skymall catalogue for sheer entertainment value.

    AND, you get to take it with you at the other end.

  5. Alastair McKenzie


    The Russian airline, Transaero, has just bought Row 44’s’ “In-Flight Broadband Entertainment Ecosystem” (Row 44 mentioned in the original post) offering passengers broadband Internet access to live television, e-commerce, video on demand, and bookable destination services, across the airline’s routes within and from Russia to North America, the Caribbean, Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East… all accessible through the passengers’ own Wi-Fi devices.

    What Greg talks about is already happening.

  6. Ola Zetterlof

    It’s all about technique nowadays, but BA has taken a nice step back to further more human, inflight connectivity…

    In a new test they have trained 100 staff and equipped them with an iPad each. Included on the iPads are copies of our destination guides for the destination. The test is being carried our on long-haul flights from London to a number of destinations and apparently going really well. Just after take off they announce over the PA that staff are equipped to help passengers with tips/recommendations for what to do and see, where to eat, shop and party. This has been especially well received in First and Business.

    “Initial feedback indicates that this service is being well received by our customers and our crew. Our crew find your guides to be informative and easy to navigate without being too overwhelming. ”

    So, big cheer for BA to bring it all back a step!

  7. Greg Dicum

    Thanks everyone for the great comments. I have just two quick followup points, both deriving from the basic fact that consumer devices and connectivity (onboard a plane or off) are both essentially brand new technologies that are being embraced wholeheartedly by consumers. Really nobody knows where this is going to go, but I have laid out my opinion above, and I think there is good reason to believe things will unfold this way.

    Anyway, my two points:

    1) @jon — as you know, I’ve been staking out this futuristic position within the IFE world for a while now; I’m looking forward to talking more with people with other opinions and visions on the pages of APEX mag and in Long Beach in September. My view is that people who have been inside the IFE world for a long time have a hard time conceiving of IFE that is not centered around Hollywood “Early Window” content, but I think there are a lot of credible signs that this situation will not last long.

    2) @peter — i agree. Of all the three things I mentioned, social networking around travel is the most speculative. Though a number of airlines and startups are starting to play in the space, nobody has yet developed a home run in-flight social network. There are technologies, yes, but nobody has yet figured out how to configure them in a way that works for passengers. That does not mean it won’t happen — look at tablets for example; they were around for 20 years before a convergence of factors (technology + brilliant design + maturing tablet-appropriate content + changes in the way people engage digital content) let the iPad become an overnight smash hit.

  8. Peter Daams

    iPads on flight are great and all, but travelling with kids last week, IFE was still the winner for them. There’s attention span issues with iPads that don’t make it nearly as perfect as you’d imagine.

    Also found it very annoying when someone was playing a game on their iPad which involved a lot of shaking around of the device. Another person was playing some first-person shooter on their laptop. Also rather annoying for fellow passengers I thought.

    I don’t deny that the future will certainly mean a lot more personal devices and easy internet access on flights. But there’s still a place for IFE and lots of ways for airlines to make it worth their expense. One of the main things I like about flying V Australia is their excellent in flight entertainment. While it’s not the only factor in decision making, I would certainly pay a little extra for this. Definitely if flying with children. Virgin America had the same entertainment, but was just charging for certain shows and movies. I imagine that pays itself off nicely for them.

    Socializing with other people on the flight – I don’t buy that at all. People are communicating less, not more, with each other on public transport because everyone is wired into their own worlds. You’re lucky to make eye-contact with them let alone strike up a conversation. This utopian view of technology is not grounded in reality in my opinion.

    Choosing who you sit next to based on SM profiles – ack. That just seems wide open to creepy behaviour if you ask me. Along the lines of that “girls nearby” app that was recently broadly canned.

  9. Jon Norris

    That’s one view of IFE’s future … to get a more balanced view on how IFE may evolve register for the APEX TC meeting which is being held at Technicolor, Burbank (CA) on the 22nd/23rd May. For more details goto:

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @jon – ouch.

      Maybe Apex would like to write a counter-point article, if Greg is wrong on a number of things…

      Anyway, in the meantime, maybe Apex would like to buy some ads on Tnooz to plug the show? Happy to connect you to our commercial guys.

  10. Maneesh Sagar

    People forget how Expensive, Slow and Rare WiFi was in the 2000s when it started appearing in the cafes.. I still remember paying $40 / month for WiFi access at Starbucks for speeds less than 1MB.

    Now WiFi is Free, Fast and Ubiquitous !

    Connectivity in the skies is going to be No Different ! Watch out for Fast & Free (or a flavor of free 😉 coming soon to an airplane near you..

  11. Scott

    If the airlines own the management of the internet access, wouldn’t it make sense for them to control the websites/companies that are accessible through their internet connection, thus turning the IFE into a revenue stream vs a cost. Sell the access to the passengers to the business/enterprises that are willing to pay for it. So if Amazon wants to sell their products to Delta’s passengers, then they have to pay to be included in the in flight distribution.

  12. Alastair McKenzie

    Hmmm, I hadn’t seen the transition to personal devices so clearly, but I *did* see the local (cabinwide) social aspect. (

    An excellent, this-is-so-spot-on, post! Thanks

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  15. Larry Smith

    Some interesting math from the quoted $3-8 million for IFE.

    Taking the low end of $3,000,000 in an average aircraft of 200 seats, thats $15,000 per seat. Over a 10 year live, that’s $1,500/year and $4/day — per seat.

    Seems like the airline should buy $500 iPads and rent them for $10 per flight. An iPad costs $500 which also means they could afford 3 per year per seat and still break-even over 10 years.

    • Chris L

      Hi Larry – some airlines are doing that; but any meaningful entertainment content will still need to be licensed, and to maximise the other ‘facets’ into useful attributes for the customers, there would need to be an investment to corral the wi-fi/internet access, to keep the revenue on board. Its a fast changing environment – but airlines , in my opinion, will NOT want to allow poeple to shop on Amazon; if they do – they lose the revenue upside

  16. JJ

    Between my Ipad & BBC I Player I could care less what an airline offers.

    • Mizzle Jizzle

      Some very interesting points, especially the part on on-board social networking. Social Networking sites such as Facebook, the local base map, but lets not forget the power of music. Whats what Virgin Airline is doing. Good article.


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