News that Oneworld alliance partners American Airlines and British Airways are to distribute Samsung Galaxy Tabs and Apple iPads, respectively, in certain first class cabins has prompted some industry observers to surmise that embedded in-flight entertainment (IFE) is playing a rapidly diminishing role in the passenger experience.

But IFE heavy hitters Panasonic Avionics and Thales don't see the popular tablet computers as direct threats to their hard-won turf. Instead, they point to an ever-evolving landscape that will ultimately see aircraft cabins harmoniously support passengers' own devices together with the airline-supported IFE, be they embedded, wireless and/or portable solutions.

"Our grand vision is that the airlines be connected, on the edge of the cloud. You'll have personal devices, and streaming video in some cases. You'll have onboard TVs and there are occasions where the airline may need something in the middle, based on a route structure or market need. An [off-the-shelf] device done right could be an effective solution so I think it needs to happen," said Panasonic Avionics CEO Paul Margis.

For some carriers, offering a Galaxy Tab, iPad or other portable IFE to first class passengers allows them to address a market imbalance if a good alternative is not yet available. "If your competitor has great embedded IFE and you need to respond in kind, it will take you 18 months," noted Margis.

But bringing portable IFE to passengers can also be a tactical move, serving as an enhancement to the IFE offering already on board. "It may be that you're going to effectively offer a digital magazine on the plane. Beyond movies, there is other content suitable to an iPad or Android-type device, which would not replace the entertainment but enhance it," said Margis.

In the specific case of American, the carrier plans to deploy 6,000 new Galaaxy Tab 10.1 devices on transcontinental flights between New York's JFK and Los Angeles, JFK and San Francisco, and Miami and Los Angeles served with Boeing 767-200 and 767-300 aircraft; international flights to and from Europe and South America served with 767-300 aircraft; and transcontinental flights departing from Boston to Los Angeles served with 757 aircraft.

Samsung said the tablets will replace the airline's current personal entertainment device in premium cabins.

British Airways, meanwhile, has reportedly begun limited trials of the iPad on select Boeing 777 aircraft. The carrier is using the devices "as an alternative to the portable DVD players currently issued to first class passengers, ahead of a refurbishment of the aircraft's first class cabin towards the end of this year", reported the Australian Business Traveller, which quoted a BA spokesman as saying: "We are currently exploring possibility of introducing iPads to enhance customer experience."

In November 2008 BA contracted Thales to fit its Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 aircraft with embedded IFE, and to install it on its new Boeing 777-300ERs.

"There are no issues with our contract or the work we're doing with BA," said Alan Pellegrini, head of Thales In-flight Entertainment. "I can't speak for BA, but keep in mind this is a long-term contract. They do have some interim needs on some aircraft until there is a change of systems, and in fact they may be looking at augmenting what they have on board today with something like an iPad.

"I don't necessarily see conflict with iPad-like arrangements supplementing IFE. In some cases it appears redundant but in other cases I think airlines see an opportunity for both, so we try to make our systems compatible with all those devices."

Pellegrini noted that, despite the buzz around new IFE options, there is "a very strong market this year for the in-seat products and our belief is that will continue to exist".

"I see lighter weight or low-cost systems coming to market, wireless content distribution or the handing out of iPads on aircraft. They're all good ideas that I'd say are providing airlines more choice and really opening up the IFE market and creating more opportunities without hurting the more traditional market for premium in-seat IFE," he added.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news