Imagine sitting on your flight, and having the choice of hundreds of movies, TV shows, songs and games, right at your fingertips, from your Tablet or smart phone. It's not as far off as you think as Lufthansa announced yesterday it will step into the realm of wireless in flight entertainment.
Lufthansa made waves yesterday at ITB Berlin Travel Fair, as they shared that they will introduce wireless in flight entertainment (IFE) to a portion of their fleet this summer on board 20 of their Airbus A321 aircraft, flying within Europe, Russia, the Middle East and North Africa.
I remember when in flight entertainment was a movie, projected onto a drop-down screen on the bulkhead at the front of each cabin section. If you were a shorter person, or a tall person blocked your view, that was just too bad. You'd see a different movie on your return trip, but if you flew frequently, you'd see the same movies repeatedly until the next cycle.
The next generation of IFE was when movies were shown on TV screens which were mounted to the roof of the cabin. This posed a problem if your seat was only a row from the TV, as you'd be forced to look almost straight up, leaving neck comfort out of the equation. Your only other option was to squint and try to watch the monitor 8 or so rows in front of you. Some airlines still have these systems today on older planes, or as a cheaper alternative to seat back video systems.
Generation 3 was the best generation yet, from a passenger perspective. LCD screens in the seat back in front of you. A screen for every passenger! This generation has evolved over the years, as airlines have added multiple entertainment options including TV shows, music channels, shopping and interactive games. There's even a dating app trying to make its way on board planes.
Andriod-based embedded IFE system on American Airlines' 777-300ER
Seat back IFE systems do have their down side. They add a lot of weight to the aircraft, and as we know, added weight means extra fuel has to be burned, raising the operating cost of the flight. They also cost a lot to maintain. A broken IFE unit means the aircraft has to be pulled out of service, which inconveniences customers and causes a loss of revenue for the airline. Content licensing for the movies and TV programs shown on planes is its own huge industry, as I witnessed last fall at the Airline Passenger Experience Expo in Anaheim, California.
On concerns that some travelers would be left without entertainment options, Lufthansa Chief Commercial Officer Jens Bischoff said "Everybody travels with a tablet or smart phone these days." Lufthansa has selected an in-house solution for its wireless IFE system, called BoardConnect. It was developed by Lufthansa Systems.
Lufthansa rival Qatar Airways has decided against using a wireless IFE solution at this time. Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker had this to say about Wireless IFE:
"The system is still in its infancy and we would not like to introduce something that is not properly tested. Imagine in an airplane you have 200 passengers all switching on tablets. What interference that would provide to aircraft communications is still not proven."
Mary Kirby, IFE expert and founder of the Runway Girl Network said,
"Early window content is crucial to airlines like Qatar Airways. They and others have massive libraries. Hollywood is underpinning the business model of embedded IFE."
When I spoke to Kirby about the potential for wireless IFE on long-haul flights, she said
"Embedded IFE screens have become a comfort factor, where passengers want to lay back and not have to think about it. Airbus doesn't even allow you to order an A350 without embedded IFE screens. Airlines literally pick a box when they order IFE. It's like buying a car without a radio, you just don't do it."
Gogo, the most popular in-flight internet provider, unveiled a new product last fall called GTO (Ground to Orbit) which they claim will feed data at up to 70MBPS. GTO is still in testing, so it remains to be seen whether it will be able to stream video on demand from a source like Netflix at a high uptake rate.
In regards to the future of seat back IFE, Kirby said:
"Airlines know they have to throw a ton of capacity at passengers. Once they reach the capability of meeting streaming demand, we might start to see embedded IFE go away. People have predicted the death of embedded IFE for years and we're just not seeing that."