Forget buying the thickest novel you can before taking off – in the last decade in-flight entertainment (IFE) has made the need for any additional stimulation redundant.

It is almost hard to believe that in the 1950s in-flight entertainment consisted largely of food and drink services, along with an occasional projector movie during lengthy flights. Or that in the 1960s, in-seat audio services became available, and later in the decade US airlines began to offer in-flight films in separate compartments of the aircraft. And even that in the 1990s, the first in-seat video systems appeared.

So much has changed in this space, and still promises to in the decade ahead.

Most airlines now offer personal televisions (PTVs) on long-haul routes. The PTVs are usually located in the seat-backs or tucked away in the armrests for front-row seats and first class. They can feature live satellite TV broadcasts. Some airlines offer video games and audio-video on-demand (AVOD) entertainment, which allows passengers to stop, start and skip through programmes, and to select films stored in the aircraft computer system.

Touch-screens and/or handsets let passengers navigate 'menus' and choose from a variety of features and content, including feature films, TV programming, children's entertainment, sport, news, documentaries, destination information, flight schedules, video games, web-based content, music playlists and more. AVOD is becoming the standard in premium cabins (first / business class) on long-haul aircraft.

First-class and other premium customers can also enjoy special facilities, such as high-speed internet access, power points for laptop computers, and a wide variety of interactive services. The latter enable passengers not only to watch a movie on demand, but also to scan the in-flight menu or beverage listing, view the duty-free merchandise selections, and order and pay for whatever they desire. Passengers can also make hotel or rental-car reservations from the aircraft seat.

THE EMIRATES IN-FLIGHT OFFERING

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Emirates, which has won a host of awards for its in-flight entertainment offerings, is one of the leading airlines in this field. Its standard entertainment system offers a vast range of films, television programmes and music. The airline also offers an award-winning information, communications and entertainment system (ICE for short) on a number of aircraft, including its Airbus A340-500 and Boeing 777-300ER.

Emirates' information offering includes live business, news and sport headlines from BBC News.

“The first in-seat video systems appeared in the 1990s.”

External cameras offer passengers unparalleled views during the flight. In terms of communications, passengers can use telephone, SMS or email from their seat, or plug in a laptop and connect via wireless to their personal email service. They can also call friends and family seated elsewhere on the aircraft.

The entertainment package includes more than 600 channels, including the latest films, television shows, audio and games from around the world.

In March 2008, Emirates became the first airline to enable in-flight mobile voice services, on an Airbus A340 from Dubai to Casablanca. Many other airlines are expected to offer passengers the ability to make in-flight mobile phone calls, following the European Commission's decision to allow the use of mobile phones on aircraft.

In the US, however, the Federal Communications Commission continues to bar the mid-air use of mobile phones, citing electronic interference with the aircraft and the potential of a terrorist threat. European regulators say that GSM technology, the European standard, is advanced enough to resist use by terrorists. In 2008, airlines began to also introduce technology that allows the use of BlackBerry smartphones.

IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT AND THE FLYING EXPERIENCE

Airlines such as Emirates are going to great lengths to offer the highest level of in-flight entertainment and communication systems, for sound commercial reasons. According to Skytrax Research of London, which conducts the best-recognised passenger survey in the air travel industry, in-flight entertainment has become a highly influential factor in customers' evaluation of the overall travel experience and in their choice of airline.

Dan Reed, vice president of product strategy at Thales, one of the main players in the IFE sector, concurs with Skytrax. "IFE systems offer airlines a way of supporting their brand image and their presentation of the whole flying experience."

But customers are increasingly demanding and want to be in control of the entertainment they are offered on flights, according to Skytrax. Every airline now has to supply IFE that appeals to a multi-cultural audience of all ages and that can keep passengers entertained for long periods of time – new aircraft are operating non-stop flights of up to 17 hours.

“Airlines are now focusing on exploring IFE services that also generate revenues.”

Skytrax also believes development of IFE Systems has perhaps erroneously focused on the needs of first / business-class customers. Yet flat-beds and lie-flat seats are becoming the norm in the premium cabin and it is the economy-cabin customer who is most likely to spend a much longer portion of a long haul flight making use of the different in-flight entertainment options.

THE COST OF IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT

However, the cost of providing the latest IFE services is high. The equipment is expensive to purchase and install. It is also relatively bulky, adding considerably to an aircraft's fuel costs at a time when the price of aviation fuel is soaring. Thus, airlines are now focusing on exploring IFE services that also generate revenues, such as internet shopping. They are also exploring the possibilities of charging a fee for access to either DC or AC power for the use of a personal
electronic device, such as a laptop.

Charging for power could be an increasingly important source of revenue as IFE suppliers develop a concept known as the passenger entertainment centre (PEC). The PEC provides passengers with a control / display console from which they can operate any video or audio device that they have brought onto the aircraft.

Using docking stations, passengers can view their carry-on entertainment on the larger airline-provided screens, rather than on the smaller screens on their entertainment devices. PECs thus offer passengers advantages but also ensure that airlines do not lose revenue through passengers' use of their own entertainment systems, rather than those installed on the aircraft.

Certainly, more and more passengers are bringing their own entertainment devices, according to Dan Reed, who adds "we are seeing a merging between the onboard IFE system and the content brought on board the aircraft by passengers."

He points out that airlines are also seeking to raise revenue from IFE systems in general through 'pay for access' or from sponsors and advertising. Dan Reed says that several of Thales's airline programmes are using pay per access, where passengers need to swipe a credit card or enter a code to get access to the IFE services.

He adds: "We are also bringing in technology that monitors a particular passenger's preferences and we are then able to provide advertising targeted at that passenger, which is generating even more opportunities for revenue. Thus we are enabling airlines to leverage the systems to generate revenue from passengers and advertisers, as we increasingly adopt the web paradigm on the aircraft."

“The cost of providing the latest IFE services is high.”

Dan Reed agrees that weight and cost are two of the main issues influencing the development of IFE systems. Thales is always looking to help airlines contain the cost of ownership. The company is doing a considerable amount of work trying to get the weight and the power of these systems down.

As an example he states: "We supplied a new system two to three years ago for one of our customers, which included a full interactive, video / audio system for their fleet, which benefited from considerable weight savings. We achieved this by eliminating all the heavy and complicated IFE seat boxes by a clever way of organising the power and the networking. Furthermore, by eliminating a lot of parts, we dramatically improved the reliability and maintainability of the system, leading to further cost savings."

THE COMMERCIAL IFE MARKET

Thales and Panasonic dominate the IFE market in the commercial airliner sector and both companies' systems (the eX2 system from Panasonic Avionics and Thales's TopSeries i-5000 system) are offered on the Airbus A380.

Airbus has dictated that IFE systems on the superjumbo must feature a high-speed fibre-optic ethernet backbone to deliver AVOD to passenger seats, as a means of saving wire and weight. Passengers will be able not only to select content but also to send and receive SMS and email, browse the internet, access corporate intranets, play games and shop online.

Should they wish to use their own laptops or other personal electronic devices, in-seat power and connectivity will enable them to do so. The IFE systems for the A380 will, to some extent, allow passengers to tailor their experience to their personal preferences. The systems will use high-bandwidth terrestrial and satellite communication systems to support off-aircraft communications.

Singapore Airlines chose the eX2 system for its A380 fleet. It provides AVOD in all three seating classes and features 100 movies, 150 television programmes, 22 broadcast radio channels, 710 music CDs and multiplayer games. Both companies are also supplying IFE systems to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

“Airlines are going to great lengths to offer the highest level of in-flight PTV entertainment and communications.”

FUTURE CONNECTIVITY

Looking forward, Dan Reed believes that connectivity is an area that is likely to develop rapidly over the next five years. "Connectivity is only now being accepted and installed on aircraft. It will give passengers more control and more options during the flight. We haven't seen connectivity deployed fully yet. Indeed, only a handful of our customers have any kind of connectivity solution today. I think this will expand and we will see opportunities to bring fresh live TV coverage onto flights.

"Of course, we will have to monitor cost carefully given that connectivity will be achieved via satellite. We're also looking at the issue of connectivity while the aircraft is on the ground. Thales has been very active in developing WiMax technology to enable the offloading of data and the uploading of fresh content onto the aircraft."

The main IFE suppliers are also likely to continue to develop the other trends already identified, i.e. they will seek to expand customer choice, while at the same time seeking to contain the weight and thus the cost of IFE systems, as well as identifying new ways in which IFE systems can generate revenue for the airlines.