In-flight entertainment and connectivity may add to aircraft weight and the maintenance burden, but evolution in the field continues as airlines strive to keep pace with what travellers want.
While airlines are continuing to invest in platforms to keep customers entertained and connected on board, they are also tailoring in-flight offerings to adapt to the new reality of more and more passengers travelling with personal devices.
Virgin America, a pioneer in offering fleet-wide connectivity, is preparing to launch an updated version of its IFE platform, called Red. In September 2011 the airline disclosed that it had chosen Lufthansa Systems' BroadConnect, which will not only offer content on seatback screens but also allow passengers to stream content to their own gadgets. The airline believes this will offer travellers the "best of both worlds".
© Virgin America
Virgin America's Red IFE platform will allow passengers to stream content to their own devices
More than half of the carrier's passengers carry a laptop on board. "Up to one-third of guests are online on our more popular long-haul routes, such as Boston-San Francisco," says the airline's vice-president of corporate communications, Abby Lunardini. "More than likely on a Virgin America flight you will see people logged on to Facebook or sending work emails, while watching CNN, flipping back and forth to Google Maps - similar to the electronic multitasking that people are doing on the ground."
Installation of Virgin America's new Red IFE system is on track to begin later this year, and the airline will begin receiving new Airbus A320-family aircraft line-fit with the system next year.
Meanwhile, legacy carriers are also investing. Delta Air Lines has allocated $2 billion to the improvement of passengers' flying experience. The airline is in the process of installing wi-fi on its regional jets and expects to have more than 800 aircraft equipped with wi-fi connectivity by summer. As of late February, more than 550 mainline aircraft were already equipped with wi-fi provided by Gogo.
The SkyTeam carrier also rolled out entertainment-on-demand in partnership with Gogo to allow passengers to stream content to their personal devices. The offering is currently available on all of the airline's 16 Boeing 757-300s. When asked about the take-up rate for the product, Delta would only say that it varies by the day of the week, time of day and the length of the flight. "We will continue to collect customer feedback before we announce availability on additional aircraft," it says.
Following on the heels of Delta, United-Continental is installing wi-fi connectivity on more than 300 mainline aircraft from mid-2012, with Panasonic Avionics providing the Ku-band satellite technology. The carrier expects to finish this work by 2015.
Low-cost carriers such as JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines are proceeding with the roll-out of wi-fi connectivity on board. JetBlue said it is on track to install its first A320 with Ka-band satellite technology connectivity later this year. The airline already offers 36 channels of free live television on its aircraft's seatbacks, provided by its subsidiary LiveTV.
JetBlue indicates that it does not plan to deviate far from its LiveTV offering. "While connectivity will offer different opportunites for customers to consume content, our core customer offering, and one that we continue to receive positive feedback on, is our 36 channels of free DirecTV," it said.
Southwest Airlines is progressing with the installation of wi-fi connectivity provided by its partner Row 44 on its entire fleet. It already has more than 180 aircraft that are wi-fi enabled and is installing it in the rest at a rate of 12 aircraft a month. The airline offers a portal with its wi-fi service, which it recently updated with a more user-friendly design, and is rolling out an improved flight tracker on the portal.
Row 44 announced a video-on-demand service last year and plans to roll out that service in the next few months. Southwest plans to offer on-demand movies and TV episodes with its wi-fi offering.
With more airlines making wi-fi available on board and giving travellers more options to access content, it seems likely that many will follow Southwest's lead in allowing travellers to access IFE on their own devices instead of through a conventional seatback screen. And IFE and connectivity providers are eager to seize upon the opportunity.
Row 44's chief commercial officer Howard Lefkowitz cites research showing more than 80% of passengers carry their own wi-fi-enabled device on board when they travel. "It makes perfect sense for an airline to capitalise on that fact - the airline generates revenue by delivering in-flight broadband entertainment to passengers' own devices rather than taking on the installation costs, maintenance expenses and added weight that traditional IFE introduces," he says.
Southwest says wi-fi is a "great way to offer in-flight entertainment" without incurring the costs of equipping every seat with a TV screen. "We are committed to operating a low-cost carrier while also being a good environmental steward," it says. "Identifying areas to reduce weight on board our planes saves fuel burn and reduces emissions, thus reducing costs."
Weight and maintenance costs are still important issues that airlines consider when they choose an IFE system. Thales Group says weight reduction is something the company is constantly looking to improve and that it can be accomplished in various ways, such as by eliminating the seat electronics box.
Calling wireless IFE a "new breed", Thales points out that it is appealing because it is easy to install, has minimum impact to the aircraft and is lightweight.
Weight was a major consideration in Virgin America's choice of Lufthansa System's BroadConnect, says Lunardini. The solution is wireless and lightweight and will eliminate kilometres of cables and other components, she says. "For an A320, it is estimated that 1,000lb per aircraft can be saved over a more traditional system," she adds.
Traditional IFE systems still present "serious weight and cost issues" to airlines, says Row 44's Lefkowitz. This is why he believes Row 44 is in a good position to provide the new generation of IFE, by "leveraging on passengers' own devices rather than requiring the airline to install hardware and cabling to every seat".
With faster Ka-band satellite technology becoming available in the near future, airlines are keen to explore more advanced options. The ViaSat1 satellite, which offers Ka-band signals, has been launched into orbit. It will support JetBlue's in-flight connectivity. Row 44, in the meantime, is developing a Ka-band model of its in-flight connectivity platform and believes that it will be ready with it if there is an interested airline customer.
Late last year, Inmarsat chose Gogo and OnAir to distribute its Global Xpress satellite service, which will operate in the Ka-band, to commercial customers from 2013. Airlines have indicated interest in this, with Gogo's partner Delta saying it is actively looking at options for wi-fi service on its international aircraft.
Virgin America, another Gogo partner, says Ka-band technology is something the airline is exploring, although a decision is yet to be made.