How in-flight entertainment is making flying fun

How in-flight entertainment is making flying fun

Free Wi-Fi, live sports, touch-free controls; that little square screen in the back of the seat in front is a master of boredom aversion
Gesture motion sensing screens: These are the movies you are looking for.

It was only 30 years ago that watching an in-flight movie meant peering over the heads of numerous rows of people to see a flickering screen at the front of the cabin. If you got a movie at all.

Now individual screens are commonplace. Fliers can choose which movies to watch, when and how. They can play games, even linking up with other passengers on the same flight. They can listen to music.

1992 First personal seatback IFEThe first personal seatback IFE screen on Emirates in 1992.

They can even, on some flights, stream entertainment options through their iPads.

And it's going to get better.

Carriers take passenger enjoyment so seriously, there’s every reason to believe in-flight entertainment, or IFE, will be far better on flights around the world than it will be back in traveler's living rooms.

“We hope passengers would look forward to long-haul flights and want to stay on the plane,” says Patrick Brannelly, vice president of Emirates Airlines’ corporate communications, and the guy who selects the films on the in-flight movie menu.

“That’s our goal." 

Emirates’ IFE system -- focusing on Information, Connectivity and Entertainment -- has won the Skytrax “Best In-flight Entertainment” award for seven consecutive years.

Brannelly’s goal -- to have people glued to their seats, rather than scrambling to get off -- is possibly not that far away if you look at the efforts being made by IFE suppliers today. 

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Jetstar IFEAirlines such as Jetstar and Qantas have introduced in-flight iPad entertainment ... for a price.

Movies and much more

Take movies -- without a doubt the main feature of IFE.

Passengers can already choose from extensive libraries -- Emirates sources various genres from around 20 different markets -- watch, pause and rewind with ease.

And now that most annoying of IFE afflictions, the landing-disrupted ending, could also be solved. Virgin America is one airline planning to debut a pay-per-play system later this year that will allow passengers to download movies or TV shows onto their personal devices via in-flight Wi-Fi.

Movies will cost US$5-7 and TV shows US$2, and customers will be able to take the files home to finish at their leisure.

Qantas, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have similar plans.

Development elsewhere is also really exciting.

Gulf Air, Bahrain’s national airline, has recently been equipped with the world’s first live 24-hour in-flight sports channel. It will feature live coverage of the 2012 Olympics, Formula One races and other sports content.

Most of Gulf Air’s A330-200 fleet will be retrofitted with the new IFE system "SkyHub" this summer. 

And gamers, making do so far with fun but one-dimensional games such as “Bejewelled,” will soon be able to play bestsellers such as “The Sims” and “Monopoly” thanks to a collaboration between DTI software, which provides games for 95 percent of the airline industry, and gaming giant Electronic Arts Inc.

Perhaps the most impressive technology is being developed by Thales, one of the world’s biggest in-flight entertainment providers, with British Airways, Japan Airlines and Qantas among its clients.

Its newest system allows passengers to navigate movies and so on through voice, eye and gesture control. See the video demonstration below. 

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Wi-Fi, soon to be Wi-Free

Beyond movies and games, connectivity is arguably the most important feature for the next generation of IFEs.

"Wireless media streaming from the embedded IFE system digital video server to passenger devices is a hot topic," says Alan Pellegrini, CEO at Thales.

“The newest generation of IFE is more than entertainment, it includes communications, which will give passengers connectivity both air-to-ground and wireless connection in the cabin,” he adds.

“Wi-Fi on board is the real game-changer,” says Brannelly. “Allowing passengers to stay connected such as on Facebook is another form of entertainment.”

Airlines such as Alaska Air, Delta and Southwest are already providing broadband services on board. Cost is the only obstacle, according to Emirates.

“It is not a way to make money and it doesn’t cover our cost,” says Brannelly. “But the feedback has been amazing. It is certainly appreciated.”

He claims it will be more affordable, or even free, in five years. Currently it can cost up to US$20, if you select for unlimited data usage.

The deal between British satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat and global aviation supplier Honeywell may help realize Brannelly's prediction.

The plan is to launch three satellites into orbit from 2013 onwards, providing fast, cheap and reliable in-flight Internet.

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IFE in 1950sIn the 1950s, you had to bring your own IFE.

IFE brings financial success

So is all this effort and spending on IFE worth it?

Brannelly says absolutely yes -- it’s essential to the overall customer experience and thus a key ingredient to an airline’s financial success.

“Whereas a lot of airlines are trying to cut budget on products, passenger experience has been paramount for Emirates,” says Brannelly. “It’s so obvious -- people like to be entertained.”

In 1992, when Emirates was the first to install personal screens on every seat for all classes, including economy class, they recorded a 20 percent increase in overall customer satisfaction.

“Why would they think that the cabin crew service is better when the only thing that is changed is the improvement of the entertainment system?” asks Brannelly.

“This is because when you get a happy customer, they are happy about a lot of things; if you got a customer that is frustrated or annoyed, that frustration and annoyance will automatically transferred to other things.” 

If all this sounds a little too impersonal, perhaps opt for Virgin America. The carrier has recently taken secretive lovers into consideration by launching onboard seat-to-seat chat messaging.

One development too far? 

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Hiufu Wong is CNN Travel's staff writer.

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