New technology abounded at the 25th annual conference and exhibition of the World Airline Entertainment Association, but the burning questions were what can the airlines afford and what will their passengers pay for?

Long gone are the days when in-flight magazines and movies on pull-down screens were the mainstay of in-flight entertainment (IFE). Today's technology offers real-time internet and e-mail connectivity, and possibly coming soon to a seat near you - in-flight personal mobile phone use too.

Airline spending on in-flight entertainment and communications products and services is creeping back up to pre-2001 levels, according to estimates from the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) and will approach $1.8 billion this year, compared with a record $2.1 billion in 2000.

But many carriers, especially the financially challenged US majors, are taking their time making big commitments. Technology is moving so fast that some carriers want to wait to see what is coming down the line. Instead of buying into expensive systems that require extensive wiring throughout the cabin to deliver entertainment options at each seat, some carriers are looking to the potential future of the "wireless" cabin.

There is no question about the importance of in-flight entertainment, says Brian Roland, engineering project manager for Continental Airlines. In a recent survey of Continental's frequent flyers about IFE preferences, they listed broadband, laptop power, video on demand, satellite TV, a moving map and satellite radio, in that order.

Looking to the future, Roland says Continental is seeking a flexible migration path since new technology is always emerging and customer operational requirements will change. The carrier is also looking for a low impact on aircraft, as well as functionality beyond traditional IFE and system ability to perform on all routes. The benefits of getting the features it wants in a wireless environment include lower weight and power requirements, substantially quicker installation, a small impact on the cabin and no impact on seats. "Weight costs big bucks," Roland says, noting that adding a wired system to every Continental aircraft means $1 million-plus in annual incremental fuel expense. "It obviously affects the bottom line."

Although extensive IFE programming has been a staple on long-haul flights for some time, major US carriers are now having to consider entertainment options on their extensive domestic operations to compete with innovative low-cost carriers.

JetBlue Airways changed service expectations among travellers when it became, in 2000, the first airline in the world to offer all passengers live satellite television free of charge at every seat. Its LiveTV packages have also been acquired by Frontier and WestJet Airlines and its XM Satellite Radio programming is being acquired by AirTran Airways.

The fact that low-cost carriers have embraced IFE has set the legacy carriers scrambling to provide more for their customers. This month, American Airlines will become the first carrier to test a portable device offered by California-based IMS. The Personal Entertainment Appliance, called PEA, uses as its base a Fujitsu notebook with a 25mm (10in) screen, modified for the in-flight environment.

Holding 10-20 movies, plus television shows, games, music and airline-created content, IMS expects airlines to charge passengers a rental fee for use of the device, except in premium classes, according to Michael Childers, a consultant to IMS. The PEA device captures a record of everything watched so that when credit-card billing is downloaded, officials will also be able to determine what programmes go unwatched for later removal.

American expects to test the device for three months on a variety of routes and aircraft, including single-aisle Boeing MD-80s. It will charge economy travellers $10-12 for use.

Portable players

Another portable entertainment device, the digEplayer 5500, is already on the market and has found significant success. The first user was Alaska Airlines, which a year ago began offering the portable in-flight entertainment device, invented and developed by William Boyer, an Alaska baggage handler. Alaska provides digEplayer free to first-class passengers and rents them to economy passengers for $10; it is so popular on some flights that pre-booking is essential.

Boyer's Tacoma, Washington-based company has since sold digEplayer to Hawaiian Airlines, Jetsgo in Canada, KLM and, most recently, Ryanair. The Irish low-fare carrier signed on for up to 6,000 of the devices, starting with 24 players on 90 aircraft. Since flight attendants get a cut of the rental fee, they will be a keen sales force.

But with its easy-to-use controls and full-colour screen, the digEplayeris likely to sell itself. Airlines are offering the device with extensive programming. For example, Alaska Airlines is currently featuring numerous recent movies television shows, cartoons, music videos, audio books, golf videos, destination information, airport guides and airline information.

Portable players are especially attractive for the airlines, since they can be acquired - purchased or leased - at a fraction of the cost of wired systems.

Availability of in-flight internet connectivity also garnered a lot of attention at September's WAEA show in Seattle. Lufthansa began offering passengers Connexion by Boeing high-speed broadband capability in May and now 13 of its aircraft have it. Scott Carson, president of Connexion by Boeing, says Lufthansa has seen a steady increase in the numbers of passengers using the system, which now runs at about 3-3.5%. "It's meeting early expectations," he says.

Overall, Connexion has definitive agreements with five airlines to equip their long-haul aircraft with its system, and three other airlines have announced their intent to install the Boeing system on their long-range aircraft. All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines both will have initial aircraft in service by the end of the year.

While Boeing is the first in the field, a number of other vendors outlined their broadband plans at WAEA:

* ARINC, which began providing its SKYLink satellite broadband product for business aircraft operating in the USA earlier this year, rolled out an expanded system targeted at narrowbodied commercial jetliners. It expects to gain the required type certificates over the next year, with the first commercial SKYLink in operation in late 2005. ARINC also expects its Ku-band satellite coverage to expand next year to North Atlantic routes, Europe and the Middle East.

* Inmarsat also plans an expansion of its existing Swift64 internet capability now used primarily by executive jets and government users but also by Iberia. The new capability, called SwiftBroadband, will use L-band to provide airlines with the bandwidth they need by 2006. Lars Ringertz, Inmarsat's head of marketing-aeronautical business, says airlines already have Inmarsat antennas and can add the capability they seek simply by adding a box on board.

* SkyWay Communications, a Florida-based company, is developing a system that it says will provide high-speed in-flight broadband communications using a ground-based network with traditionally low bandwidth. President Brent Kovar says the company's patented technology will enable a lower bandwidth pipe to transmit significantly larger amounts of data. SkyWay acquired the licensing permission of the previous AT&T/Claircom Wireless system, which includes about 135 ground stations primarily through North America.

* US-based Verizon Airfone, which offers JetConnect e-mail, instant messaging and text messaging, is conducting test flights of its broadband system it expects to offer with WiFi technology to airline customers in 2005. The company, whose 13 current customers include Cathay Pacific Airways and Continental and United Airlines, is awaiting a ruling from the Federal Communications Commission, which would initiate a bidding process for the licence it needs.

Mobile telephones

Potential use of personal mobile phones during flights also got an airing at WAEA, with a number of companies outlining their ventures in the field. However, the regulatory authorities have not yet addressed safety concerns, in particular whether the phones will interfere with aircraft navigation and communications systems.

So far, though, ARINC has teamed with Norway's Telenor, a major Inmarsat satellite partner, to pursue the regulatory authority to offer onboard services that will allow passengers to use their own GSM mobile phones. Officials of both companies say the market potential is huge; there are about 1.5 billion mobile phones in use worldwide, 75% of which are GSM.

Verizon Airfone is also looking for on-board cell phone use, but is aiming solely at the US market, where Verizon Wireless currently has nearly 40 million residential customers. Already, Verizon Wireless customers who are frequent flyers get a price reduction when making or receiving Verizon Airfone calls on board aircraft and charges go directly to their Verizon Wireless bill.

Another player is OnAir, the newly named company formed by SITA, Airbus and Tenzing. With its Tenzing base, the company says it will continue to offer the in-seat telephony now available in already equipped aircraft, but expects to enable passengers to use their own phones on board by 2006.

Beyond the safety issues, there are also "social issues" to be sorted out, according to Continental's Roland. Airlines could need "mobile-phone free zones" or "quiet time" when calls are not permitted. "My idea," Roland jokes, "is cell phone use permitted in the lavatories only!"


Source: Airline Business