The days of having to endure a long single-aisle airliner flight without in-flight entertainment or internet connectivity (IFEC) appear to be nearing their end – in certain parts of the world at least. Research by FlightGlobal shows an increasing number of operators offering passengers content – streamed to their own devices or available on seatback or overhead screens – or web access. Six out of 10 Airbus and Boeing narrowbodies today feature some form of IFEC. However, the picture differs depending on manufacturer, as well as region, with the technology much more entrenched in North America, for instance, than in Europe.
Using our Flight Fleets Analyzer database, we looked at the economy cabin offerings of the operators of just over 13,000 in-service Airbus A320-family and Boeing 737 Next-Generation and Max aircraft across all areas of the world. We found that on one in every four narrowbodies, passengers are offered both IFE and connectivity, while IFE alone is available on just over a third of aircraft. According to our sample, Boeing operators are more switched on to the IFEC opportunity, with seven in 10 aircraft fitted with IFE. On A320-family airliners, the split is 50:50.
Major regional variations can be seen too. North American and Asian carriers are the biggest IFEC adopters, offering it on around 2,800 and 2,700 single-aisle Airbus and Boeing aircraft, respectively. However, that only tells part of the story. In North America, which represents 24% of the global fleet, for every narrowbody flying without IFEC there are seven offering the service. In Asia-Pacific, where 37% of our sample aircraft are based, it is more balanced, with some 2,300 aircraft not IFEC-equipped. In Europe, which operates 26% of the fleet, the picture is very different, with just over 1,000 aircraft offering IFEC and more than twice that number – some 2,400 – without.
There could be many reasons for this regional imbalance. In the USA, the size of the prize for IFEC providers appears small given the expectation from the travelling public that most airlines will provide an IFE system. In fact, many of the carriers that do not offer it make a big play of their stripped-down, ultra-low-fare business model. However, given that IFEC is so entrenched, and has been for many years, with some older aircraft featuring overhead screens that provide passengers little or no choice over content, there is plenty of opportunity among the technology companies offering newer-generation systems to compete for both new aircraft and retrofit work.
The competitive space for providers appears different in Europe. The fact that approximately 70% of single-aisle aircraft do not have IFE is a result of two main factors. Firstly, the sector lengths they operate are typically shorter than in North America, where coast-to-coast or north-south flights can typically take 4h or more. Secondly, in the last decade or so – as IFEC has made serious in-roads elsewhere in the world – the European narrowbody sector has been increasingly dominated by low-cost giants Ryanair and EasyJet, which have (aside from one brief flirtation by the Irish airline and recent limited trial by EasyJet) veered clear of offering IFEC to passengers. Norwegian is the one major exception to the rule in the low-cost sector.
Could that change? Well, for a start, budget carriers are increasingly flying longer routes within Europe – from the UK to Jordan or Iceland to Israel, for instance – and although there is still an expectation of pared-down service with bundled extras – such as check-in luggage, preferential seating and on-board catering – it is possible that one or more carriers could begin to offer IFEC as a product differentiator, even in the low-cost sector as a paid-for service. No-frills pioneers such as EasyJet have also made a big play of wanting to attract more business travellers, and last year EasyJet announced that it was trialling its scheme to stream content to passengers' devices. Meanwhile, among legacy carriers, Lufthansa has perhaps been the most committed when it comes to connectivity – of which more later.
In Asia-Pacific, the fact that large numbers of single-aisle aircraft are operated by low-cost carriers could be partly behind why just under half of those in that region within our sample have no IFE equipment installed. However, as demand for air travel continues to grow, coupled with the proliferation of mobile devices among consumers, there could be a passenger-led push for more access to content and connectivity. Of the other two major regions, around 75% of Latin American aircraft have IFEC installed, while in the Middle East – a part of the world where widebodies predominate – single-aisle aircraft operating there predominantly feature IFE.
The method by which airlines in our sample deliver IFE is split almost exactly three ways, with 33% of aircraft fitted with overhead screens, 32% with seatback, and 32% providing streamed content to passengers' own tablets and phones. In only 1% of our sample does the airline provide customers with carry-on devices, a method that seems archaic in the age of smartphones and iPads. However, that three-way division is less clear-cut when we look at the situation in each of the biggest three regions of the world.
In the USA, the most favoured method of providing IFE is streaming, with operators of 52% of aircraft that come with the technology choosing this route. A further 40% have seatback monitors, with only 7% of aircraft with overhead screens. Some airlines even offer streaming on some of their aircraft and seatback on others, a strategy that is understandable if a carrier offers two different fleets or is transitioning from one type of aircraft to another, but must raise questions of product inconsistency from a passenger experience point of view.
In Europe, the story is different, with an almost equal number of aircraft featuring overhead screens as opposed to those with streaming available. Seatback screens are installed in only 11% of aircraft in our sample – which only includes aircraft with IFE – a small proportion compared with North America. Airlines providing portable entertainment devices to passengers make up a tiny percentage of the market. In Asia-Pacific, the North American picture is almost reversed, with overhead screens the dominant technology. Almost one in three aircraft in the region have a seatback solution, while on around one in 10 narrowbodies has streaming offered.
Our assessment of the various IFE providers' shares shows a fragmented market, albeit one in which established players Panasonic and Rockwell Collins between them represent almost half the installations. Below them, two newer names – Global Eagle Entertainment and Gogo – have each captured 10% of the single-aisle segment. A group comprising Live TV and three big brands in the world of interiors – Lufthansa Systems, Thales and Zodiac – have mid-single-figure shares, while five others each represent around or under 1%.
In terms of internet connectivity, some of the same names feature in our snapshot of all narrowbody aircraft in which this service is provided to passengers. However, the market has fewer competitors, with three – Gogo, Global Eagle and ViaSat – occupying approximately 83% combined share. US provider Gogo, which launched its latest satellite-based 2Ku system in 2014, has certainly made a lot of the running in this particular segment. It has the largest, 43%, slice of the market, while Panasonic and Honeywell have much smaller shares.
Delta Air Lines is a full-service airline that has fully embraced IFEC as part of the passenger experience. IFEC solutions have been on board its aircraft for many years, but recently the carrier has embarked on a programme to upgrade its equipment. Older examples of Airbus A320-family and Boeing 737NG aircraft have been retrofitted with interiors matching its newer models. The fit includes seatback screens from Panasonic together with Gogo's 2Ku. In fact, the US carrier has the largest fleet with 2Ku installed, at almost 250 aircraft, according to Flight Fleets Analyzer.
One of Delta's rivals – American Airlines – has adopted a different strategy. Its new 737 Max 8s are equipped with streaming IFE and internet connectivity provided by ViaSat. The airline has a fleet of 700 A320 and 737 aircraft, but sub-fleets of both types have different IFE delivery methods, with older aircraft equipped with streaming, while newer ones have seatback IFE. The decision to provide streaming on American's 737 Max aircraft is driven by the pace of evolving technology. The airline believes that not only are increasing numbers of passengers comfortable with using their own familiar devices, they are more likely to upgrade to new ones as mobile technology evolves while embedded seatback systems become dated.
Over in Europe, Lufthansa also provides a streaming IFE service to passengers, with the hardware manufactured by Lufthansa Systems. It has also recently started introducing internet connectivity to A320-family aircraft across the Lufthansa Group airlines, including Eurowings and Austrian. Retrofit installations of the Honeywell hardware have taken place at a rapid rate over the past 18 months. Our sample data shows that so far 166 aircraft have been equipped.
A very different European airline is Small Planet, an independent pan-European leisure carrier and wet-lease specialist. As part of a recent fleet-wide cabin retrofit programme, the Lithuanian operator has introduced a streaming IFE solution developed by Dutch provider AirFi. The portable boxes can be updated with fresh content while being recharged when they are off the aircraft. It is a lightweight and cost-effective solution, ideal for a small airline.
In the Middle East, Emirates' sibling Flydubai began life in 2009 as a low-cost carrier but has since modified its business model and introduced frills such as a premium class, airport lounges and, not least, onboard entertainment on its fleet of 737s. While its older -800s offer all passengers IFE and connectivity, its new Max 8s feature seatback screens manufactured by Zodiac Inflight Innovations, with connectivity due to be added shortly.
Late last year, 9 Air – a growing low-cost carrier based in Guangzhou, operating 14 737-800s – announced that it would begin to equip its aircraft with internet connectivity, with the hardware supplied by Global Eagle Entertainment. It is fortunate timing for 9 Air, as the rules regarding the use of electronic mobile devices on board Chinese aircraft are being relaxed, and FlightGlobal understands 9 Air to be the first airline in mainland China to retrofit internet connectivity to a single-aisle airliner.
Source: Flight Daily News