You’ve just finished the PowerPoint presentation for tomorrow’s meeting. Now it’s time to brush up on your Japanese with some interactive language lessons. After that you might unwind with a video game — MagmaZone! — surf the Web and then fall asleep watching “X-Men: The Last Stand.”
Once the sole province of the living room, this cocoon of productivity and diversion is now accessible from the seat of a plane, on your own schedule, through the high-resolution display of your personal in-flight entertainment system.
While the likes of TiVo and Blackberry have created new standards for on-demand media in terrestrial entertainment, airline passengers are used to leaving behind — or adjusting their expectations for — digital amenities when they hit the friendly skies. But the days of Internet-less cabins and single, scheduled movie screenings are being left in the wake of the skyrocketing variety and quality of in-flight entertainment. On more and more carriers (and especially on long-haul flights), travelers can now choose what they want to watch, play, learn or listen to, and when they want to do it.
“Passengers’ expectations are higher,” says Rob Brookler, Publications/P.R. Manager at the World Airline Entertainment Industry, a network of in-flight entertainment and communications professionals. “Satisfaction levels are driven by external environments — customers are used to off-the-shelf products that give them more control, volume and connectivity. People are accustomed to having these options, and when they walk on to a plane, you can’t really expect them to give all that up.”
To meet higher customer expectations, several carriers have implemented “audio and video on demand” (AVOD) systems that offer myriad movies, video games and music files to choose from.
“On demand is such an obvious application for the airlines,” says Rich Salter, Chief Technology Officer at Lumexis, a corporation that develops and sells in-flight entertainment systems with a fiber optic-enabled video and data distribution network for aircraft cabins. “The variety of content keeps increasing,” he explains. “airlines now have super-libraries of high-definition content.”
While many airlines offer seat-back (or, like Kenya Airways, portable handheld) on-demand entertainment systems, some are working with passengers’ private hardware to offer individualized information and entertainment.
In fact, this combination of personal devices like laptops and PDAs working in concert with an airline-provided broadband delivery system is one likely model for in-flight entertainment in the near future.
Connextion by Boeing, the provider for broadband service on several large international carriers, has announced that it will discontinue service by the end of 2006, but several other providers appear ready to step in. Colorado-based AirCell is slated to roll out a Broadband System in late 2007/early 2008 that aims to turn airplane cabins into Wi-Fi “hot-spots.” According to Tom Weigman, AirCell's Senior Vice President of Wireless Services, the carriers understand that “passengers’ greatest urgency is to do exactly the kind of things in the sky that they do in their homes — use e-mail, web sites and access information.”
Jack Blumenstein, President and CEO of AirCell, adds that airlines’ sophisticated installed entertainment systems “aren’t going to go away overnight, but the holy grail of every passenger using his or her own device for in-flight entertainment could be a reality soon.” Through an airline-provided broadband delivery system such as AirCell’s, customers would be able to use their personal devices to access the Internet, email and company VPNs while also tapping into the airplane’s own cached content of entertainment and localized information.
In fact, place-specific content like local maps, language-training (Singapore Airlines’ system offers Berlitz courses in 22 languages) and destination information is another popular feature among consumers. According to the WAEA’s Brookler, “Internationally, passengers also want relevant programming: content that is locally produced for them; regional news; popular music; sports in that region; and current events.”
Singapore Airlines spokesman James Boyd agrees: “There’s a trend toward internationalizing content — it’s becoming much broader and better represents the international makeup of the passengers.”