Will iPad destroy in-flight entertainment? Expert weighs in.

Will tablets, like the Apple iPad, spell the end of in-flight entertainment (IFE), like some folks suggest? One industry expert weighs in (yes, anonymously, but you’ll see our expert knows about which he speaks).

I don’t think it will spell the end of IFE, but perhaps not for the reasons many seem to presume. For me, the value in IFE comes from a few unique-to-IFE areas:  

The first is content, collectively. Content is king. If you look at the consistent winners for cabin experience, and in some cases, IFE specifically, you will see a trend in that each has focused on providing a content-rich experience. You could set your iPad (or laptop, or iPod, or whatever) on auto-download for weeks on end, on your home network (the fastest) and not even come close to having the same content experience that is possible on IFE.  Factor in that airlines refresh their content every month (and in frequently emergent cases, even more often) and you can see where the PED experience cannot hope to keep pace.

The next is the experience. IFE is “uniquely present” in the cabin experience requiring nothing more of you than to select what you want to do. Moreover, it’s present for the airlines, which is to say, they extend their brand to every passenger. Yes, there are some airlines that should never have been allowed to put their hands on the GUI/brand design, but there are many that truly “get it,” having created a wonderful environment that both appeals and satisfies. The passenger is subtly and deeply immersed into the airline’s brand and simply selects what they want, and they off and running.  No muss, no fuss, no device to hold-up/prop-up, etc. I think it was LiveTV that did the brilliant ad that said, “Is this the future of IFE” in which a passenger was hunched over their iPod, craned neck (ouch, that hurts) holding their device to watch a video. With the iPad, or otherwise, this will remain the case. And with the iPad, the airline gets little, though I must admit that with the connectivity portals, they can extend via this portal.

The next is evolution. IFE manufacturers are not going to rest on their success thinking they’ve got this sussed. Sure, they’re proud of what they’ve achieved and think they have a great product. That said, their product strategists are always focused on innovation. What tends to get lost on the doomsayers of IFE is that there’s more to this than what meets the eye (of the user).  

IFE manufacturers design for experience, reliability, quality, weight, power, consistency, etc. This never stops.


Another item to consider is penetration. Sure, Steve Jobs and his ilk would LOVE to see iPad ubiquity; their model is about so much more than the device (think Apps Store and iTunes; that’s where the killer profit comes from), but I posit that they’ll be lucky to see a 10-15% penetration in developed markets, and substantially less in less-developed markets. 

Further, their penetration is dubious in non-English-speaking markets; look at the failure of the iPhone in Japan and Korea. In air transport, the product has truly reached the masses. The cost of air travel has dropped so low that huge aspects of the population now travel, if not frequently, at least with some irregularity. Will all of these folks have portable media devices?  Not likely. I don’t even think that a majority will have them. For the airlines, the IFE product is not only part of their brand, it’s a significant pacifier that keeps the passengers sedate and happy, especially families with kids. Again, happy.

Beyond product evolution (hardware and systems), a primary focus for IFE companies, now, is on the passenger experience and the business platform that modern IFE represents. The advent and emergence of connectivity is rapidly evolving the IFE paradigm. People are keenly aware of the necessity to keep the platform current while also providing airlines with increasing opportunities for revenue enhancement, passenger intimacy, etc. There are myriad methods to do this, typically unique to each airline, but they are happening and will continue to do so.  The challenge to ensure that IFE firms not only keep pace, but that they drive change. 


By the way, I should say that I DO see a place for devices such as the iPad in IFE. They will be accommodated and perhaps even catered to some degree. There may even be airlines that will want wireless networks with content streaming, etc., and no imbedded seat equipment. This is not yet practical with current technology (not enough bandwidth for mass streaming), but there will come a day.  But herein again, for lesser penetration (back to my 15%, above).

(Photo of iPad from myuibe’s Flickr stream)

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10 Responses to Will iPad destroy in-flight entertainment? Expert weighs in.

  1. Ivan March 25, 2010 at 4:18 pm #

    It depends. I personally am satisfied with the IFE used by, for example, Air Canada in its newest aircraft, but I have a friend who travels long distance more frequently than I do, predominantly with the same carrier, and he has to load new movies onto an iPod Touch to watch, as he has already seen all the IFE ones that are on offer. The selection is not that good and broad, in fact.

  2. Anthony March 25, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    “think Apps Store and iTunes; that’s where the killer profit comes from”

    Its not that Apple is making a huge profit off the store (they aren’t[1]) rather its the usefulness of the apps in the store that drive people to buy an iDevice (an iPhone costs $180 in parts, Apple sells them to AT&T for $600 each). An iPhone without apps isn’t too useful in today’s market (it makes for a nice smartphone but that’s about it).

    The source is right however, Content Is King. Whether its live TV (something the iPad wont likely see for a long time) or a huge library of movies to draw from, music, entertainment (games), in-flight chat with others, etc, IFEC is suitable for 95% of the flying public.

    [1] http://www.iphonealley.com/current/apple-app-store-itunes-not-money-makers

  3. MoJoh March 25, 2010 at 6:43 pm #

    Was this the work of S.D. by any chance?

  4. Kurt Brown March 27, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    This opinion seems remarkably like that of the people that thought “the internet in your refrigerator” was a good idea.

    How can anyone think that a product that costs thousands per seat, can only be upgraded with a fleet-wide maintenance overhaul (costing further millions), can keep up with a consumer technology, which advances significantly every 6 to 12 months, in hardware, software, and content?

    This is “blinders on” thinking of the first order.

    My prediction: The smartest, nimblest carriers will sidestep the entire IFE debacle, just like they sidestepped in-flight phones, and work on their free, branded, WiFi iPad channel, which is a software-only solution. With iPad loaners handed out free in 1st class and rentable in biz and coach.

    Southwest should be working on this one already. If they’re not, and someone from Southwest is reading this, please call me, and I’ll deliver you a full business plan and rollout of features/functions at no charge, just so I can be a customer.

  5. Elias Pappenheim April 4, 2010 at 11:22 am #

    Ill be so happy when I get my ipad and get it jail broken, apparently its supposed to be ten times better then anything apple has put out before.

  6. iPad Forums April 7, 2010 at 10:10 am #

    im loving the ipad personally. what do you think of it now? was it upto your standards?

  7. Patrick April 15, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    The inherent problem I have with the “expert” commentary is that he is asking the wrong question. Its not about which delivers better content : IFE vs PED (personal electronic device i.e. ipad, slate, laptop etc). Its all about IFE AND PED content. True innovators in this space would see this. The key to the success of any airline strategy is recognising that combining the content of the IFE system and the PEDs automatically places you in a much stronger position. To be competitive, they are going to need to integrate the PEDs into the existing IFE systems on board.

    Lets unpack this a bit with an example : Row44. Its a converged platform that offers Internet Access, IPTV Multicasting, and Telephony. Once you have it installed, all three of these services are available to customers. The question is how do passengers access these services? Do you install seat back PTVs, or do you allow the passengers to connect directly to these services with their own device? Or do you do a combination of both? The direct advantage of allowing the passengers to connect with their own device is that they get access to both content : their own, AND what is being offered via the IFE system. An additional advantage is that it saves weight and cost (wiring, PTVs etc). Long term, the onus for keeping current with technology moves to the passenger, and the airline retreats to the content provider role only.

    In my opinion, SWA have hit a home run here. They have recognised that combined content gives them a competitive advantage, and have chosen a solution around this instead of adding complexity, weight and cost. What I would like to see them (and others that are adopting this strategy) do : install universal dock adapters on the seat backs so that you dont have to hold the PED.

    Some other carriers may opt for a combined model with PTV access and PED to combined content. Others will stick with what they have. But ask yourself this question : what would you prefer on your next flight? Access to Live TV, some stored movies on the IFE server, and the internet, or access to all of this PLUS whatever you have on your iPAD/Slate?

    With regards to penetration of asian markets : the iPad may be a flop there, but its becoming blatantly obvious that Slates are the next big thing. They may not go the Apple route, but there will be many alternatives, and IPTV is an open standard that requires a client and IP connectivity. There are many many ways to deliver this…


  8. Joseph April 19, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    The “expert” certainly sounds like a hack for the IFE industry… and the commentary smacks of a whiff of desperation as they see the writing on the wall, so to speak. The iPad is only the start of an avalanche of products from several manufacturers over the next few years that will make IFE completely obsolete.

  9. Eulalia Trinkl July 4, 2010 at 1:29 pm #

    The iPad has already changed the way I do my work – the iPad is here to stay!

  10. Teodoro Milbourne September 11, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    What do you think of the prospects for serious multi-touch DJ software on the iPad and iPhone?

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