IFE becomes comfort factor for passengers


In years past, self-proclaimed experts have predicted a “disruption” in the inflight entertainment industry that would see wireless IFE replace embedded in-seat systems, and in turn dramatically reduce the weight, complexity and cost associated with bringing traditional wired systems to aircraft.

Where are those soothsayers now? They certainly weren’t present when Singapore Airlines recently rolled out a state-of-the-art IFE system on its new Boeing 777-300ERs or when American Airlines opted to install monitors at every single seat on its new Airbus “A321T”, giving JetBlue Airways, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines a run for their money in the super hot US transcontinental market.

Airlines are certainly adopting wireless solutions that stream movies, television programs and other content to passengers’ own devices (think Southwest Airlines, Virgin Australia and the trials underway at LAN and SilkAir, just to name a few). But these wireless offerings aren’t replacing embedded systems on long-haul aircraft. Rather, for the most part, wireless IFE is being deployed on narrowbodies that never offered embedded IFE in the first place.

That’s because in-seat IFE has become a comfort factor on long-haul flights. It’s no secret that airlines use audio/video on demand IFE to distract economy class passengers from snug seating configurations, and some have admitted as much on record. But major airframers also increasingly see in-seat IFE as simply part of the product on their widebodies (imagine selling a car without a radio). For example, when ordering the Airbus A350, airlines must select an IFE system. They don’t have a choice, as Finnair discovered.

“If you have a long flight without [in-seat] IFE, that’s the worst thing you can dream of. I did that once and it’s not funny,” says Airbus VP cabin innovation & design Ingo Wuggetzer. “The current trend we see is to maintain in-seat IFE, and to have streaming on the top to allow passengers to work on their mobile devices while watching a movie.”

If the market evolves to the point where passengers clearly favor their own devices over seat-back screens on long-haul flights, Airbus will then adapt its approach. “Definitely, that could be an option in the future, but we need a clear reliable system on that, and clear demand for that,” says Wuggetzer, who will be speaking at the Hamburg Aviation Conference in February.

Japanese hybrid, low-cost carrier Skymark will serve as a sort of guinea pig for the industry when it launches A330 service with only premium economy seats installed and, significantly, NO embedded IFE.

But one clear hurdle impeding a broader shift away from embedded systems to wireless-only systems is the fact that Hollywood continues to disallow the streaming of early window content to passengers’ own devices due to security concerns. For those of us who will happily watch reruns of Sex in the City ad nauseum in-flight, Hollywood’s stance might not sound like a big deal. But it is, in fact, a very big deal to passengers, especially frequent business travelers who sometimes book long distance flights based on what movies are available!

New release films “captured huge audiences” for Qantas in 2013, “with the top three films viewed more than 100,000 times within the first month of the film’s screening”, notes a new report from SmartHouse. It quotes Qantas head of digital and entertainment, Joanna Boundy, as saying, “On average customers spend about 80% of a long haul flight watching movies, TV programs and listening to music, so it’s absolutely essential we provide content that they’re going to enjoy. We know new release films and comedy are favourites with our customers, so continually refreshing the content makes sense.”

When I launched Runway Girl Network a few weeks ago, some industry players were surprised to learn that I hadn’t dedicated an entire news category to IFE. Had I turned my back on an industry that I had covered for so long? On the contrary! Covering embedded IFE as part of the web site’s COMFORT category is an homage to just how far these systems have come; just how “embedded” and “ingrained” they are in the passenger experience.

So please, sit back, get comfortable, and enjoy Runway Girl Network’s in-seat IFE coverage in its rightful home – the COMFORT category.