The growing prominence of handheld entertainment devices has prompted a number of leading airlines to rethink their in-flight entertainment (IFE) strategies in recent months. Leading the way, Qantas became the first carrier to loan economy and business class passengers an iPad 2 during their domestic flight, with wireless connection to more than 200 hours of on-demand entertainment. Initially piloted on a single Boeing 767-300 last month, the devices were loaded with a ‘Q Streaming’ application, which could also be downloaded from iTunes for use on personal laptops, smartphones, tablets and other Wi-Fi enabled products. The trial was such a success that Qantas is finalising plans to offer ‘Q Streaming’ across its wider fleet. “The passenger feedback was overwhelmingly positive,” reflects Qantas executive manger of customer experience Alison Webster. “Customers have enjoyed the flexibility of Q Streaming programming and the wide range of content available.”
As sales of laptops, smartphones and tablets continue to sky-rocket, many aviation commentators have championed the potential role of such devices in IFE developments. However, the likelihood of traditional seatback entertainment systems being relegated in favour of handheld devices is debatable, especially in the Middle East where several carriers are kitting-up their fleets of new aircraft. “The major GCC airlines, especially those with younger fleets such as Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad, already provide an exceptionally strong offering to passengers and are considered by many to be the world leaders in IFE,” explains Toby Stokes, EMEIA aviation sector leader at Ernst & Young. “IFE technology is a key building block for a superior customer experience and an integral part of the flying promise with these carriers.” Living- up to the reputation of having the best IFE in the world is by no means easy, particularly as the latest state-of-the-art systems can be very expensive to install. “The installation and provision of a leading-edge system is certainly not cheap,” agrees Stokes. “Airlines tend to utilise the same IFE system for a number of years before upgrading again so the cost is spread over multiple years.”
The speed of technological innovation, however, can mean that whilst an airline is busy installing its latest multi-million dollar system, the next-level system is being negotiated by its competitor. Also, increasing connectivity on flights has raised the bar for IFE to a whole new level, although few Middle East airlines yet offer full Wi-Fi and internet connectivity in the air. In spite of this, experts like Stokes believe the trend towards handheld devices will continue to gather pace over time, with both consumer computing hardware like tablets and effective in-flight broadband becoming key to the future of IFE in the Middle East. “The accessibility of personal computing hardware to the public is growing exponentially as the global electronic giants continually increase specifications and decrease prices,” he maintains. “Effective in-flight broadband is also becoming more available.” He points to US airlines that are already launching faster mobile satellite services capable of allowing large numbers of people to simultaneously stream videos, log onto emails, play games and even upload high-definition video.
In theory, the use of handheld devices as the vehicle for IFE holds many advantages for the airline industry. As well as being expensive, on-board IFE installations can be slow and time-consuming. Airlines could potentially save millions from not having to install IFE equipment including seatback screens on aircraft – not to mention fuel savings from losing the extra weight. Maintaining and fixing the system is another worry out the window. Many passengers already carry their own portable media devices on board aircraft – with several planes offering power sockets and USB ports to facilitate this. Passengers could, ideally, log onto the airline’s IFE portal once they check-in at the airport, and continue enjoying it whilst waiting for the flight, during the flight and even some time after the flight through uploading – a real bonus for the passenger and a loyalty winner for the airline. But if the advent of the handheld device holds so many positives for the airline industry, why haven’t more of the Middle East’s leading players taken it on-board?