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5 April 2017 · 3 min read

The evolution of in-flight entertainment

Will the new restrictions on electronic devices change IFE trends?

Recently I have been reading with interest about how avionic manufacturers are rethinking in-flight entertainment (IFE) given that almost every passenger now has their own electronic device, pre-loaded with their choice of films, television programmes and music. In a culture of ‘on demand’ entertainment, a small screen with poor sound quality, showing a fuzzy version of a relatively recent film understandably lacks the allure it used to hold. There is one school of thought that personal devices could soon remove the need for dedicated IFE systems altogether and I can see the logic in that. Well at least I could until the ban on electronic devices on certain routes from the Middle East was introduced. This unexpected change to the status quo has caused consternation amongst travellers with children and business passengers alike, and will no doubt have the avionics industry reassessing about what future IFE systems should look like.

It is logical to assume that when looking from an economic perspective, airlines would fully support the long term idea of removing IFE systems. It would significantly reduce aircraft weight which leads to lower fuel burn, and therefore lower operating costs and higher profitability. From a customer perspective, it would lead to a more comfortable flight as the space around the seats would increase. This explains why you rarely see seat back screens on narrowbody aircraft nowadays which are generally used for short haul flights.

However, historically the quality of an airline’s IFE systems has been seen one of the few areas carriers could use to woo customers from rival airlines, and also to differentiate the classes of its cabins. Fundamentally, most passengers do not care about the technical developments in aircraft handling, reliability, fuel burn and aerodynamics, they judge their flying experience by how impressive the kit in their seat back is, how much space they have and the quality of the food.

This therefore explains why the current trend on wide body aircraft is towards finding ways for personal devices to interact with and augment seat back screens. Jon Norris, senior director of integrated solutions at Panasonics Aviation Corp explains that “it is not about having a personal device or seatback screen, it is about having both. In your home how often do you watch TV with a second screen on your lap?” I can firmly admit to this being the case in my household so I understand what Norris is suggesting. In our ever connected world we want to email, instant message and surf social media whilst watching our favourite box set or the latest film release.

It seems to be that whether or not IFE systems are required comes down to the issues of screen resolution, sound quality and connectivity. For a passenger to choose the IFE system over his own device, it must offer a better quality viewing experience with a wider choice of media. In the world of iPads, offline content from providers such as Amazon Prime and noise cancelling head phones, IFE systems face stiff competition.  Logically it therefore seems that airlines and the avionics industry must be facing a very fundamental decision; either scrap IFEs altogether, or invest heavily in new technologies to ensure that IFE remains a differentiating factor.

The new regulations last week are therefore likely to have challenged current thinking. Anyone considering IFE as superfluous to demand is probably reconsidering their position. In our day to day lives we are increasingly used to having whatever we want, whenever we want it thanks to the Internet. However, controls over what can be taken on aircraft are becoming more and more restrictive. It is all too easy to forget that in the 1990s smoking was still allowed on board, whereas nowadays the thought of lighting up a cigarette whilst airborne is inconceivable to most people. A world here we cannot fly with electronic devices in the cabin seems similarly incomprehensible, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility as terrorist’s use of technology becomes ever more sophisticated.

Therefore it seems likely that IFE systems are set to stay, and will require heavy investment in order to develop technology which keeps pace with customer expectations. The screen and sound quality, level of connectivity and personalisation could be the defining factors between airlines, and between classes on an aircraft.

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