Op-Ed: The state of inflight entertainment, past, present and future

This is an Op-Ed contribution from Laurent Safar, the CEO of Adaptive, which provides mobile inflight entertainment to airlines.

Today’s consumers are completely different than the consumers of the past and their desire to be constantly connected has changed the aviation industry significantly in the past ten years; unfortunately for today’s cash-strapped airlines, keeping aviation technology up-to-date with consumers’ expectations is proving increasingly difficult. Nowhere on an aircraft is this difficulty more apparent to the consumer than the inflight entertainment system.

But there’s good news: by updating their IFE systems to meet passengers’ high-tech expectations and improving their inflight experience, airlines now have the opportunity to increase brand loyalty and, as a result, reduce costs and boost revenues. Isn’t technology amazing?!

Of course, it can be very difficult to determine which IFE solution would be best for your airline, so I’m here today to give you a handy guide to the current state of inflight entertainment and the three different types of IFE solutions available on the market: seatback IFE, wireless IFE and mobile IFE.

Seatback IFE Solutions

In the early days of IFE, the gold standard was the embedded seatback system, which, once installed, was a simple, convenient solution that gave passengers hours of entertainment. For many years, seatback IFE was the primary option available in the IFE market but, due to the recent advancements in both avionics and consumer technology, there are now other IFE options available; however, seatback IFE solutions are still very well-suited to long haul routes and are a highly desirable perk, especially for premium passengers. They are reliable and, because they are embedded in the seats, they are self-charging and can integrate with the PA to ensure that all passengers hear inflight announcements and security demonstrations.

The main drawbacks of seatback IFEs are the high CAPEX, the substantial weight that each unit adds to the flight and the difficulty to manage upgrades or refurbishment of the units, which can be costly and time-consuming.

As such, airlines have begun to reconsider the business case for using only seatback IFE solutions across their entire fleet; instead, many are opting for a combination of seatback IFE plus mobile IFE or are adopting a fully wireless IFE or mobile IFE approach.

The combination of seatback IFE plus mobile IFE is particularly beneficial because it enables the airline to enrich their content offerings with other types of digital media (i.e. newspapers, magazines, etc.), provides remote control capabilities and enables the seatback IFE to function as a second screen for passengers who choose to enjoy multiple types of entertainment, simultaneously, during their flight.

Wireless IFE Solutions

Since a key issue with seatback IFE solutions is the weight, high CAPEX and durability of the screens, many airlines are now choosing to implement wireless IFE solutions, which offer significant advantages to both the passenger and the airlines. One such airline is American Airlines, who announced in 2017 that their new Boeing 737 Max aircraft would not include any seatback IFE monitors. According to the airline’s statement, “[m]ore than 90 per cent of our passengers already bring a device or screen with them when they fly” so the decision was made to upgrade the speed of the inflight WiFi (enabling faster online streaming), plus offer a wireless IFE solution.

Wireless IFE solutions are, quite literally, solutions that eliminate the wiring and the associated seatback screen that are necessary for the functionality of seatback IFE solutions. Wireless IFE solutions stream content from an onboard server to a mobile device, where the content can be accessed from the device’s built-in web browser or from a downloaded app on the passenger’s personal mobile device.


Today, most airline passengers worldwide travel with at least one mobile device. SITA’s 2014 Passenger IT Trends Survey already showed that 81% of passengers traveled with a smartphone, 43% of passengers carry a laptop and an additional 43% carry a tablet inflight. In addition, many passengers are also traveling with two or more devices: the same survey showed that 18% of passengers bring a phone, a tablet and a laptop onboard. Because of the prevalence of mobile devices, wireless IFE solutions present a cost-effective way for airlines to offer content on the devices that passengers are already bringing onboard.

There are two different types of onboard servers used in wireless IFE solutions: a fixed or a portable box, powered by a battery, both of which have different benefits and drawbacks. With the fixed server, there is more CAPEX and more work necessary for onboard installation, but less OPEX. A portable box has a lower CAPEX and it can be implemented quicker but they have a higher OPEX, as the server must be taken on and off the aircraft for charging before and after each flight. Neither option is universally better or worse; the choice between a fixed server or portable box depends on each individual airline’s specific needs, budget, fleet details, etc. and the two options should be weighed carefully.

Mobile IFE Solutions

Steve Jobs, the former co-founder of Apple had famously said: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology — not the other way around.” Mobile IFE solutions are the epitome of that mindset, as they give passengers an inflight entertainment experience on their preferred device, with personalized options, and enable comfortable access to all types of media content, including newspapers or magazines (which would be awkward to read on seatback screens because of the need to swipe the screen to turn the pages).

As with wireless IFE solutions, mobile IFE solutions can be used via a mobile app, on a passenger’s own device or devices provided by the airline or a combination of both. The content is housed in the Cloud and can be downloaded when connected to WiFi or GSM, either before boarding (or onboard in a connected cabin). Unlike seatback IFE and wireless IFE solutions, mobile IFE solutions don’t require an onboard server, so they represent a smart complement to both seatback and wireless IFE solutions, without adding extra weight. Compared to both seatback and wireless IFE, mobile IFE solutions have significantly lower CAPEX (as there is no hardware to buy or install and the solutions are completely turnkey), OPEX and time to launch and deploy; in fact, mobile IFE solutions enable concurrent worldwide deployment across a fleet in only a few months.

Another benefit to mobile IFE solutions is that (if used with the passenger’s own device) the content can be viewed/read throughout the entire trip, from the airport through to arriving in their destination – not just during the flight, as with seatback and wireless IFE solutions. This can dramatically increase a customer’s overall satisfaction, as it helps make the long wait at the airport more enjoyable and provides the possibility to finish reading the magazine or watching the video they started inflight, upon arrival at their hotel in the final destination.

Mobile IFE solutions also offer opportunities for customer segmentation and new ancillary revenue streams. Because the passenger is identified, it is much easier to segment the content by customer class or loyalty program status and give, for example, unlimited access to the content to the top tier of passengers as an incentive for continued loyalty. It is also easier to provide each passenger with the most relevant content based on their past usage and current destination. For example, Singapore Airlines uses a mobile IFE solution to provide unlimited access to newspapers and magazines for all its passengers, while TAP Portugal uses the same solution to award only a certain number of complimentary credits (which can be used to download media via the app), depending on passenger class. In addition to segmenting by passenger class and/or frequent flyer status, it is also possible to segment content based on the route, to enable offering regional or non-English-language content to passengers onboard certain routes.

As CAPEX is very low and OPEX is vastly diminished using mobile IFE, the barrier for entry is almost eliminated, making it more accessible to all types and sizes of airlines and for all types of routes (including short and medium haul, as well as regional routes). Mobile IFE solutions are especially useful for airlines who lease all or some of their aircraft (as they wouldn’t want to invest in embedded IFE solutions on leased aircraft, as well as to enable consistency in their IFE offerings across the fleet and provide a backup IFE system, available to all of the fleet, worldwide).

There is one important pre-requisite to mobile IFE solutions when used in non-connected cabins: the airline is required to develop a thorough communication plan, leveraging the experience of its mobile IFE supplier, to remind passengers prior to the date of travel to download the content prior to take off; however, the need for ongoing reminders may be reduced by taking other strategic actions.

Some airlines, such as Air Caraïbes, chose to offer a combination of the two device options: the airline offers a BYOD (bring your own device) app-based IFE and some pre-loaded devices for premium passengers who don’t have a mobile device or who have forgotten to download the app and content prior to boarding.

Another way to reduce the need for ongoing communication is to integrate the IFE app into the airline’s booking app and make it a part of the booking funnel. In addition to reducing the communication necessary to remind customers to download the content prior to boarding, integrating the IFE and booking apps will significantly increase in the passenger pick-up rate of the app.

I know that you’ve received a lot of info in this Op-Ed and now you’re probably thinking: “That’s super informative but which IFE solution is best for my airline?”

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question; however, the future is becoming increasingly mobile in all industries – and the aviation industry is no different. Seatback IFE will continue to provide a compelling solution for long haul routes, while others will prefer wireless IFE. Mobile IFE can work as a stand-alone solution or can be used as a relevant complement to both seatback or wireless IFE.

In the end, you should choose the IFE solution that best suits the specifics of your current fleet (and future orders), your routes and your customer demographics, as the end goal should be to create a seamless viewing/reading experience – and the best possible inflight experience – for each and every passenger.

About the author, Laurent Safar:

As CEO of Adaptive, Laurent has pioneered digital press and entertainment on mobile devices for passengers. Adaptive’s entertainment platform is now used by airports and airlines around the world. Prior to co-founding Adaptive, Laurent ran a business jet airline in France. Prior to that, he spent 10 years at Airbus headquarters, looking after finance and joint ventures for Irish based GPA Group, now GE Capital Aviation Services, the world leader in aircraft leasing. Laurent is also an investor and non-executive Director in several technology companies in the field of digital, e-commerce and nano technology.

About Adaptive:

Adaptive provides global airlines with a sophisticated mobile inflight entertainment (IFE) solution called ACES, which delivers curated content in multiple languages, encompassing diverse, globally-relevant media, along the entire customer journey – before, during and after the flight. ACES was designed to function either as a standalone IFE solution or a complement to a seatback or wireless IFE solution, for airline passengers maximum flexibility and a large library of content (including digital media, such as newspapers and magazines), all of which can be viewed on the passenger’s own mobile device or on devices provided by the airline via an app or web portal. The solution can also be used to provide entertainment to guests in airport lounges or by other transportation companies looking for a flexible, cost-effective entertainment solution for their passengers.

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