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Airlines

Screen Time

Mario Pierobon looks at the latest trends in inflight entertainment and connectivity
 

The increasing popularity of personal electronic devices (PED) means that passengers rely on their smartphones, tablets and other portable devices for more and more day-to-day activities. “We have seen a massive change in the last 10 years within the inflight entertainment (IFE) and aircraft cabin industry due to the proliferation of PEDs,” says Nicole Grainger, Marketing Manager, Inflight Connectivity Solutions, Collins Aerospace. “With the growth of both smartphones and tablet computer or devices, the likelihood that every passenger has a high quality screen and their preferred video/audio content in their pocket or bag is higher than ever.”


Evolving IFE concept


Douglas Campbell, Director OEM and Commercial Sales at FDS Avionics says that with the popularity of PEDs IFE has had a significant increase in accessibility and demand. “IFE providers have created a myriad of options for passengers including favourite TV shows and films, early access to Hollywood blockbusters, immersive moving maps, and access to games, news and more. Major airlines have adopted personal seatback monitors and PEDS at every seat in newer aircraft and retrofitted older aircraft as well. This all demands a robust local IFE server, like FDS's do CAPSULE media server, to distribute the content to the seatback monitors and PEDs,” he notes.


PEDs and integrated IFE solutions are indeed complementary technologies that provide an opportunity for IFE suppliers. “We have developed functionalities that integrate the use of PEDs into the IFE systems as a remote control, a second screen and a means to personalise the IFE experience,” says David Pook, Director of Marketing at Thales InFlyt. “Passengers can now interact with the IFE before boarding through the airline app which offers a variety of services including choice of entertainment, meals and duty free items.”


Ana Cerezal, Global Marketing and Communications Director of Display Interactive, believes that the popularity of PEDs has indeed affected the IFE landscape as more and more aircraft are being equipped with bring-your-own-devices (BYOD) systems that allow passengers to enjoy a full catalogue of entertainment and digital services content right at their fingertips and through their own devices. “What is interesting about BYOD systems is that the digital experience of the passenger is not disruptive and provides them with a very easy-to-consume platform that follows the codes and behaviours of what they are already accustomed to use on ground,” she says. “Another important benefit of BYOD systems is that there are mechanisms intrinsic to their BYOD nature that unlock personalisation better than other available systems in the market, for example the IFE system recognises the language of the passenger devices and proposes the system in that language by default.”


IATA’s 2018 Global Passenger Survey revealed that passengers would still rather watch digital content on an embedded IFE system. “Providing extraordinary experiences through IFE is essential for airlines to create passenger choice and to demonstrate that they understand traveller needs,” says David Withers, CEO of Burrana. “Our next generation of IFE will enable passengers to feel even more connected and entertained while fully satisfying their devices’ power needs. Our next generation of lightweight, low-power and easy-to-install solutions will feature super-thin screens which will be lighter and give passengers increased space. Moreover, our adaptable architecture will support changing passenger needs. In response to market feedback our next generation configurable hybrid IFE solutions will provide cost savings for airlines and improve operational efficiencies. These solutions combine to enhance the passenger experience and, if desired, allow airlines to generate ancillary revenue.”


For what concerns ancillaries, Cerezal notes that there is a benefit to using own devices when it comes to seat order and pay. “Passengers feel more comfortable using their own devices when they want to purchase something through a digitalised payment method. Another relevant point is that the passengers own the device so that hardware component is lighter than other systems, hence less expensive and fuel efficient. The advantage of this is that the airline can multiply the client touch points not just during the in flight phase, but also right before and after,” she says.


Airlines are indeed becoming aware that not only are they competing with the quality of the hardware that passengers are bringing onboard the aircraft, but the software and platform that the content is consumed through is also changing, with personalisation and content curation becoming more commonplace. “The passenger expectations of the in-seat systems are also changing/evolving as the way one consumes media on the ground shifts,” says Granger. “For those regional or smaller airlines which have not historically had in-seat IFE systems onboard, this change is a clear opportunity to offer a more tailored onboard experience, offering passengers content and access to a wi-fi network that can enhance the inflight cabin experience. Wireless IFE is a significant market now and passengers are interested to see where this will evolve to make their inflight experience better and more meaningful.”
Fixed IFE installations


For the international full service carriers, there will continue to be a demand for in-seat IFE. “Especially in the premium cabins, there is an expectation for a premium service and luxury as well as a multi-screen environment that will necessitate that ‘large screen’ in-seat installation  with passenger PEDs enhancing this with streamed content and off aircraft connectivity enabling a ‘multi-screen’ consumption environment,” says Granger. “In the economy cabin there is more of a question related to the passengers on board and whether the removal of the traditional in-seat system would alienate those passengers who are not as up to date with technology as others on board the aircraft. This could, however, be countered by the rental of electronic devices to those who do not have their own – providing an additional revenue stream to the airline, but it could increase the logistical complexity of the cabin service.”


There is indeed a future for embedded IFE and most in-service aircraft have overhead or embedded IFE fitted. “Although passengers may bring their personal electronic device onboard, they want to make the most of their inflight experience and expect a variety of IFE content and entertainment at their fingertips,” says Withers. “Embedded IFE is more interactive than ever, with HD 4K screen resolution. Passengers are entertained and have access to vital flight information throughout their journey. Our PAVES On-demand embedded IFE architecture gives passengers choice with the latest in high definition video and entertainment applications. Our 4TB content set includes early-window movies, short features, music, podcasts, audio books, digital magazines and newspapers, comics, games and destination guides. Our PAVES On-demand and GLIDE embedded systems also provide crucial flight and onward journey-planning information, including moving maps, 500+ interactive airport maps, transfer and baggage information, which passengers can access at their leisure.”


Pook notes that there are different use cases for IFE screens and PEDs, as well as the opportunities to integrate the two devices. “We see a strong future for embedded screens to provide unique services that PEDs are not well positioned to provide,” he says.
While passengers can view their own content on their PED, airlines and IFE providers have still seen strong demand for on-board media servers and seatback displays to provide content to passengers, according to Campbell. “Not every passenger will have a PED or access to downloaded content, so streaming from the internet cannot be relied on as there are cost, bandwidth constraints, and regional infrastructure issues which would limit streaming. Passengers have come to expect the airlines to have entertainment options for them regardless of PEDs. For the low cost carriers such as SouthWest Airlines, that have foregone installing seatback monitors, many still have a local media server to stream entertainment to their passengers that are connected wirelessly through a PED such as Southwest Airlines. This gives their airline competitive advantage and the ability to have IFE without the cost of installing displays,” he says.


Low cost long haul


IFE remains relevant to passengers, no matter the type of airline or flight. Its value is different based on the duration, and the content needs to be adapted to all these particularities as the IFE varies depending on whether the flight is long haul or short haul. A peculiar domain is that of the low cost long haul business model which brings particular challenges. “One needs to understand what the business model for a low cost airline is. We constantly work with airlines to come up with the most adapted solution that makes the investment more profitable and delivers a great experience to passengers. There are many mechanisms and strategies to exploit in order to come up with a successful project, and definitively the IFE is a brilliant circuit for new business revenues to be exploited,” says Cerezal.


“The low cost, long haul market is different from the traditional short-haul model and different again to the full-service long-haul carriers. This comes with its own opportunities and complexities. As a business model, it is still emerging and as such there are ‘early adopter’ passengers who are quick to adapt to the ‘change’ in the associated in-cabin experience and those that are more traditional in their expectations who prefer the full-service carrier,” says Granger. “There has been a recent shift in the way passengers are thinking, their drivers and key requirements for booking air travel. The element of loyalty and status is shifting and being replaced by a segment of passengers who are more focused on ease and convenience in terms of timing, price and destination — they will respond to low-cost long-haul travel in a different way and will be focused on different elements of the on-board service.”
Campbell believes that IFE is still important in the low cost long-haul markets. “IFE gives passengers many options and gives the airline brand differentiation. For long haul flights, locally stored media servers are essential for quick access and zero lag time. Passengers on a long flight will always want to have IFE to keep them occupied and entertained for the many hours spent on the aircraft,” he says.


“Low cost carriers can generate value in commoditising retail via the IFE system, by offering food and beverage purchases, duty-free shopping, and on-arrival purchases for hotel bookings, car rentals, event ticket sales, tourism and hospitality. Embedded IFE future proofs aircraft with scalability, giving airlines the flexibility to upgrade their system as technology advances," says Withers.
Indeed virtually every twin aisle aircraft on order come off the line with an IFE installed. “With single aisle aircraft, we are looking at 20% of the new build fleet coming off the line with IFE onboard. This will likely grow with the extended ranges provided by the 737 MAX and A321XLR servicing long haul routes,” says Pook. “No matter the business model, airlines are increasingly treating IFE as a revenue generator; and with the systems becoming more affordable and lighter weight, we believe it is relevant even with low cost models.”
Seat-centric IFE also enables airlines to maximise operational efficiencies with no single point of failure, as content is stored at the seatback or arm-mounted screen. “Embedded IFE is lightweight and maintenance friendly, helping to minimise the cost of ownership. Embedded IFE is manageable within maintenance budgets and tight turnaround schedules,” says Withers. “Passengers are never without entertainment, as spare media player units (MPU) are automatically loaded with the latest software and ready-to-display content titles within minutes. When head-end line-replaceable units (LRU) are replaced and automatically loaded with software, they are ready to use within 15 minutes.”


IFE and brand differentiation


Not only is IFE going to stay but it is also going to offer larger brand differentiation opportunities. Airlines are more conscious about IFE costs than before, but IFE systems have responded to this new scenario. “Airlines appear to be working to get a deeper understanding of their customers and what is important to them, then shifting the cabin services to cater to those needs appropriately,” says Granger. “Depending upon the airline, their route structure and aircraft fleet, there will be a differing level of focus placed on the need for seatback IFE.”
Local on-board IFE gives the passengers options beyond their own content and gives the airlines a new revenue stream via payment for access to the IFE as well as the ability to have advertising revenue, according to Campbell.


“We are constantly working on new revenue streams to be unlocked thanks to the use of the IFE system, but these new revenue models need to be justified and with the ultimate purpose of always offering something relevant to the passenger,” says Cerezal. “Our system is fully flexible so it can become a unique touch point for airlines, differentiating themselves from others applying unique digital strategies. The technology of choice must be fully flexible and give the airline the possibility of deciding and quickly adapting the content of the IFE, so they can gain competitive advantage.”
More than ever, airlines are recognising IFE as core to their brand proposition. “They are investing in affordable, configurable and reliable embedded and overhead IFE systems such as PAVES on-demand, and GLIDE and PAVES Broadcast," says Withers. “Airlines are focusing on improving the passenger experience through the continued integration of entertainment content and digital-technology trends. User Interface (UI) design in an IFE environment is trending on a similar path to content; replicating smartphone or smart TV navigation and content choice.”


IFE offers an opportunity for strong airline brand differentiation via a tailored airline UI and specific content that showcases the airline’s brand story. “The IFE system’s engagement with a captured inflight audience is central to delivering brand differentiation, showcasing products and services, sponsorships, cultural stories and unique brand messaging that meets the regional demographic of travellers,” says Withers. “IFE trends we are observing include a modular approach to technology, such as open-platform systems that enable integration of future technologies, as well as tailored approaches that meet the unique requirements of airlines, brand promise and a passenger-experience focus. We also notice contemporary slimline screen and personal-controller design features as well as a greater focus on passenger experience through the integration of trends in entertainment content and digital technology.”
The threat of commoditisation is a concern in the industry as airlines could become seat resellers, while the experience onboard could be provided by someone else. “The legacy of the IFE industry is mostly about the movie experience and the number of movies on your screen. As connectivity brings a disruption that enables streaming and personalised experience, it is quickly becoming the norm and by itself it is not enough. We need disruptive technology and new business models to provide differentiation through passenger experience and the airline brand,” says Pook. “Our InFlyt360 digital platform is designed to do just that. The trend in digitalisation will continue to be at the forefront, allowing airlines to create new ways to differentiate their service and improve operational efficiencies through the IFE system. This requires suppliers to provide the data security, new business models, and intelligent digital platforms necessary enabling airlines to realise their digital ambitions.”  


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