What started out as a trickle has developed into a fast-running stream as airlines around the world adopt the Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab and other consumer devices for in-flight entertainment (IFE).
The appeal is obvious. The devices are capable of supporting hours of video and audio programming, games and more, with a high-resolution screen and superb sound quality; and passengers are increasingly familiar with the technology. But the real appeal for airlines lies in the cost savings.
Consumer devices such as the iPad and Galaxy are "the logical next step in the IFE&C evolution" thanks to their reduced weight and thus fuel burn, less invasive infrastructure, lower costs and reduced maintenance burden compared with traditional seatback-installed IFE, says Michael Planey of specialist IFE and interiors consultancy H&M Planey Consultants. iPads could save an airline 800-1,000lb alone in weight per aircraft compared with older IFE systems, which equates to "a fairly substantial saving in fuel costs alone", he says.
Maintenance costs are also reduced. "When a unit doesn't work, you just swap it out," says Planey.
These benefits have led AirAsia X, Air Baltic, Air Nigeria, American Airlines, British Airways, EasyJet, Iceland Express, JetAsia Airways, Jetstar, Qantas, Scoot, Thai Airways International, TransAsia, Virgin Australia and WestJet, among others, to join the iPad/Galaxy IFE club.
Many more are set to follow. "I do believe that there will be more airlines using some form of consumer-level portable device," says Planey. "They will be used in all aspects of IFE and onboard service, including expanding IFE into smaller aircraft which traditionally did not offer personal IFE before, as well as replacing some of the systems in larger aircraft."
Content providers agree. "Almost every customer we are engaged with is paying close attention to the use of tablets for IFE and several are involved in trials and tests," says content provider IFP, which recently launched an iPad programme with TransAsia Airways, initially offering them to business-class passengers on selected international routes, with plans to expand to all routes.
Fellow IFE content and solutions provider IFE Services is working with three of its airline clients on iPad projects, most recently launching with Air Nigeria in business class. Adrian Lambert, head of marketing, says the company is in advanced negotiations with several more airlines.
But the consumer devices are not every airline's IFE dream, and the technology has its drawbacks - namely logistics, in terms of battery charging, aircraft distribution and storage, says Michael Reilly, chief operating officer of Sydney-based IFE content and services provider Stellar Inflight. And Stellar should know a thing or two about iPad/Galaxy use for IFE, from its work with Jetstar, AirAsia X and Scoot, with "several more in the pipeline and another launching with iPads very soon".
Reilly says: "It's not a wart-free solution and we've never claimed it to be, but it's significantly less expensive in terms of purchase and maintenance cost, as well as operating costs - weight and fuel burn - than traditional IFE systems. The airlines generally view that although the fleas come with the dog, the pros outweigh the cons."
As more airlines introduce the technology, more of the barriers are being overcome. Security issues, for example, have led to the introduction of various RFID tagging/scanning processes, as well as security on the devices that renders the content useless after a certain period of non-syncing, says Reilly. "We're glad to say the theft rate is very low," he adds.
One of the iPad pioneers, Jetstar, took two years to get its programme off the ground. The Australian low-cost carrier first trialled the technology on two aircraft in June 2010, in a project involving Stellar and Bluebox Avionics. Following the trial, the intention was to roll out the devices across the fleet, but that did not happen until November 2011, following the resolution of a raft of issues including security over early window Hollywood content and agreement with Apple. Jetstar became the first carrier in the world to offer tailored technology for the device. Today the devices are available on all Jetstar flights of over 90min duration, at a cost of $10-15 per flight.
The devices are loaded with Hollywood movies, TV series, music videos, games, magazines, albums and e-books, with content updated monthly. On Jetstar, the iPads are in a special case designed by Bluebox, with an RFID tag and an external battery. The devices are stored on board in galley carts and exchanged for passenger ID. Batteries are charged in the ports, with external batteries changed over on board.
Devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab are already familiar to many passengers
"The iPads have been warmly received by our customers," says the airline.
Rather than sounding the death knell for traditional seatback IFE, however, consumer devices have so far extended the reach of IFE, opening up a new sector, providing airlines with more choice and low-cost carriers with a new potential revenue stream. The airlines that have adopted the consumer devices are largely LCCs, which previously used portable DVD devices if anything, or full-service carriers looking to supplement the installed IFE in premium cabins - just as carriers did in the 1990s with consumer DVD devices. For example, American Airlines was an early user of consumer DVD players in the aircraft cabin and has now done the same with the Galaxy Samsung Tab 10.1, offering the devices in the premium class cabins of selected 767 and 757 flights.
"The competition in the air is becoming more intense as all airlines seek to find a differentiation in passenger services," says Planey. "The LCCs start from a mindset of budget-conscious innovation and that means they are more willing to take a risk on new technology in the cabin."
Seatback-installed IFE systems for widebody aircraft produced by manufacturers Panasonic and Thales still have a future while the airframers maintain their high entry level - and if recent orders are anything to go by. Etihad, for example, recently signed a 10-year exclusive $1 billion agreement with Panasonic to use its eX2 and eX3 IFEC systems and the Global Communications Suite for 100 new aircraft, while Thales says it has "big orders" to announce at the APEX expo, which will take place in Long Beach, California, from 17 to 20 September.
Nor is seatback IFE for the retrofit market by any means dead, based on the orderbooks of the manufacturers of the new breed of seat-centric, smaller, lighter IFEC systems. IMS's RAVE (Reliable Audio Video Entertainment) system, for example, has won orders from 11 airlines, including most recently a commitment from Lufthansa to equip 80-plus widebodies. Clearly, no one size fits all, even in the retrofit market.
The next evolutionary step - wireless streaming of content - is already starting. "Tablets are definitely a growing form of IFE - particularly for LCCs, premium classes or aircraft with no traditional IFE. However, I think the biggest thing will be wireless streaming to passengers' own devices, which we are launching imminently on three different airlines," says Reilly. "I firmly believe that although the portable stuff is evolutionary, wireless will be revolutionary - and it's imminent."
Keen not to miss out, Panasonic and Thales have maintained their development of wireless technology ever since the early days of wireless IFE systems for the 787.
Thales has its new AVA wireless streaming media solution, while Panasonic's eXW has recently been selected by Qantas for its 767s. Despite a successful wireless streaming trial - dubbed QStreaming by Qantas - with Lufthansa Systems' BoardConnect since February on a single 767, Qantas has opted for eXW for the fleet, believing it offers more opportunities for further development.
From October, Qantas will provide each passenger on the 767s with an iPad in the seat pocket with over 200 hours of IFE content to be streamed via eXW, free of charge. The 767s were previously fitted with overhead monitors only.
QStreaming is unlikely to stop there. Qantas says it is "working through options to utilise the QStreaming concept on other aircraft types".
Meanwhile, Virgin Australia has started rolling out Galaxy tablets pre-loaded with content across its domestic and short-haul international flights, and the airline says it will start adding Lufthansa Systems' BoardConnect wi-fi streaming before the end of this year, allowing content to be streamed to the Galaxy tablets and to passengers' personal electronic devices.
Virgin Australia's IFE on the 737s previously comprised DigEplayer portable DVD players and the Live2Air LiveTV product, but its IFE future on the 737s is focused on the Samsung Galaxy and BoardConnect. The carrier says it tailors its IFE options according to the duration of the flight, and as such there is still a role for installed IFE systems on its long-haul services.
"The potential market for all forms of wireless IFE - to embedded screens, airline-portable screens and passenger personal devices - could reach 30-50% of the retrofit market in five years," says Planey. "Beyond five years it is difficult to say where IFE will be."