Competition between providers of live television on board aircraft is hotting up as the orders roll in

Live television during flight, until recently only to be experienced in the cabins of a select band of North American low-cost carriers, has started to extend its reach around the globe. Two new airlines have signed up to offer live television to passengers recently, in very different regions.

Qatar Airways has been rolling out live television since July and now has 14 aircraft, including its brand-new Airbus A340-600s equipped with Rockwell Collins' satellite television system. "We will add a further seven aircraft by February," says Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker.

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© Gareth Burgess   
"Our products are proven to pay" Scott Easterling, sales and marketing manager, Live TV.

So far the service is only available on Middle East-Europe routes, as Rockwell Collins has obtained content rights throughout those regions, but "we expect to add the service to Qatar flights to the USA in February", says Alan Bearden, Rockwell Collins cabin sales director. "There will be a phased-in approach to content on the Qatar flights," says Bearden. "We will initially offer eight channels of news, sports, finance and entertainment."

As a further boost to the Rockwell Collins sales book, India's Kingfisher Airlines announced in December that it is introducing live television on its Airbus A320 fleet. "The system is being retrofitted on one of our A320-family aircraft by Gamco in Abu Dhabi and we expect the service to go live a week or so after certification," says Hitesh Patel, Kingfisher executive vice-president. This is expected some time in January.

He expects the service to be rolled out across the carrier's 22-strong A320 fleet by July 2007 and says it will be available in both the business and economy class cabins and will be provided free of charge to passengers.

Rival live television provider LiveTV - owned by US low-cost carrier JetBlue - added Australia's Virgin Blue to its customer list in 2006, its first outside North America. The carrier launched Live TV's live2air service in August with two aircraft operating across all the carrier's routes. Virgin Blue's approach differs to that of Kingfisher in that it uses the service as a revenue generator.

"We charge A$6 ($4.70) per viewing gate-to-gate and A$9 for flights over three hours," says Virgin Blue chief executive Brett Godfrey. "Passenger response has been very good. A recent flight from Melbourne to Perth recorded that an exceptionally high 42% of guests aboard swiped their credit card and viewed the range of channels all the way to their destination. Feedback suggests guests particularly liked the channel mix. Sky News is proving to be one of the channels most watched."

"We have not conducted any formal research, but the response we get from talking to passengers and also journalists is very positive," says Al Baker.

Live TV has also established a toe-hold in the European market with its contract to supply seatback in-flight entertainment systems for Italian carrier Air One's 30 new A320s. Although the service will not include live television, "we will update content automatically when the aircraft lands at an airport equipped with the base station equipment", says Live TV sales and marketing manager Scott Easterling. "We anticipate showing news items and so on in short segments that will be updated on a very regular basis," he adds.

Payment options

As to generating revenue, Easterling says that where free live television is available during a flight there is a charge for opting to watch a movie. There are exceptions however on JetBlue flights to Puerto Rico there is a point at which the live television signal is lost, at which time movies are shown at no charge.

Going forward, Easterling says Live TV is looking at further enhancements to the system including the provision of internet and e-mail to passengers. "We have experts meeting potential partners and talking to customers to learn what they want. The whole thing in the past has been a commercial problem, not a technical problem," he says, citing the failed Connexion by Boeing (CBB) service as one that failed to attract broad appeal.

Several carriers that had been offering the CBB service, including Singapore Airlines, had included live television to that package. Panasonic Avionics, which is preparing to offer a replacement CBB broadband service, "will have three or four carriers in the launch group that will offer live television", says David Bruner, Panasonic Avionics director of strategic product marketing (see p52).

Live TV, meanwhile, is more "aligned with the low-cost carriers. Our products are proven to pay," says Easterling.


Source: Airline Business