In coach class passengers are contentedly gazing at seatback video screens, absorbed in a broad range of quality in-flight entertainment. Live television and radio vie for passengers' attention with the latest movie releases of 2005. Adults while away the hours making purchases of questionable wisdom or slowly gambling away their vacation funds. Contented children immerse themselves in a fantasy world of computer games until overcome by sleep. Meanwhile, in business class there is an air of cool, constructive activity. Satellite phones are in continual use; executives' fingers dance, albeit clumsily, over lap-top computer keyboards; and faxes are sent and received at each seat.

For airlines this is a glorious vision of the future. Not only have many of these passengers chosen to fly with them for a reason other than pure pricing: they are actually spending money on-board. But how probable is all this? The coach class scenario may not be too far off the mark, but on first impressions airlines may have to reconsider treating their premium class passengers as workaholics.

Today, the denizens of business class appear no more enthusiastic about taking their worries into the sky than is the average holidaymaker. Satellite telephones languish unused; fax links generate only lukewarm interest, and data communications still less. Weary executives know that long-haul travel is wrecking their home lives, eroding their health and boring them to distraction. Given that, they are unlikely to submit voluntarily to having their privacy encroached on at 36,000ft. Most galling for the business traveller must be the thought of an efficient, global ground-to-air communications network allowing the office to track his every movement.

By 2005 all the technical difficulties that have soured airlines' early experiences with advanced IFE will be far behind them. The problems are not, in fact, particularly insurmountable. But in the rush to access the technology airline marketeers have leaned on their engineers, who in turn leaned on suppliers, resulting in the latter making promises they could not keep. Two or three years from now, however, the only issues in IFE will relate to what services should actually be supplied.

The next decade will see an explosion of games technology and the evidence is that it will be as popular in premium as in coach class. Games satisfy both key drivers of the IFE industry: they are a powerful product differentiator and can generate a discrete revenue stream.

Programme providers are queuing up to satisfy the anticipated vast demand for in-flight material - but the anticipation may be misplaced, especially for economy class passengers. It is far from clear what, if anything, should replace quality movies as preferred watching for passengers. It is also not certain which, if any, of the other theoretical possibilities in IFE will actually prove worthwhile.

Gambling may work for a limited number of passengers and it has the great attraction of immediately generating cash - but its potential is probably limited. Shopping is more promising and the potential products are endless, but the biggest hurdle is how to shorten the gratification period - the time between ordering and receiving the product.

What could shape IFE's development is the unprecedented opportunity to collect data on viewing habits matched with named, prosperous individuals from across the world. For advertisers, long-haul travel constitutes a kind of massive, ongoing research project as well as a marketplace.

IFE may astound us all, but be prepared for a hefty dose of mediocrity as well. Mass entertainment for profit inevitably descends towards the lowest common denominator and it is hard to see why IFE should prove any different.

Source: Airline Business