Not so long ago, those expensive, proprietary seat-back entertainment systems were the coolest way to entertain yourself in the sky - and a key point of airline differentiation. But the rising popularity of iPads threatens to make even the slickest built-in entertainment systems obsolete. Forward-thinking airlines are scrambling to get ahead of the trend.
Until quite recently, the prevailing school of thought was to make traditional in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems bigger and better. That’s certainly the idea behind IFE systems on new Boeing “Dreamliner” 787s.
But as more and more passengers tote their own tablets (not to mention laptops, ultrabooks and giant-screen smartphones), the airlines, plane manufacturers and third-party service providers are starting to question the value of traditional IFE systems.
Traditional in-the-seat entertainment systems are beginning to be supplemented and even replaced by systems designed to deliver entertainment wirelessly to passenger’s personal electronic devices or in the case of some airlines, tablets that are loaned to passengers for the duration of the flight.
Singapore's Scoot Loves It Some iPads
Singapore Airlines subsidiary Scoot recently launched a new IFE program that rents iPads to economy passengers for S$22 (US$17.65) per flight (free to business-class customers), “pre-loaded with 50GB of the top movies, TV shows, games and music.”
Scoot representatives declined to go into technical details behind their in-flight systems, but a little math can go a long way in explaining the program’s appeal.
The airline operates 402-passenger Boeing 777s. Typically IFEs weigh about 13 pounds, counting equipment in the seatback and underneath the seat. Simply handing every passenger an iPad instead of these on-board systems would save 4,647 pounds or 2.3 tons, per flight. Give or take, depending on how full the flight is.
That’s a lot of weight - and more importantly a lot of fuel - to save. (Of course, that doesn’t account for the centralized equipment needed to deliver the content to the iPads or the seat-back systems.)
Finally, iPads cost a lot less than the expensive, proprietary systems they would replace.
An iPad in Qantas' Pouch?
Australian carrier Qantas is implementing a similar program on its Boeing 767-300ER fleet. Depending on the configuration of the plane, Quantas can seat anywhere from 228 to 254 passengers on these craft, putting the weight saved from 1.3 to 1.5 tons per full flight.
Based on the fuel burn rate of a Boeing 767-300ER, that comes to around 96.4 pounds of jet fuel saved during every hour of flight at cruise altitude, which is just a smidge more than 14 gallons per hour.
Just to put this into perspective, the longest flight scheduled for this particular aircraft is likely a JFK-Buenos Aires run, which clocks in at 10 hours, 35 minutes. That’s about 9.5 hours at cruise, so it’s 133 gallons of fuel saved for the trip. At current fuel prices, the savings would add up to $724.85 per flight.
These are very ballpark numbers, of course, since they don’t take into account weather and the fact that as planes fly, the burn rate changes since the plane gets lighter as it goes. But given the number of flights per year (one per day, round-trip), a single 767 on this route alone might end up saving $529,140 in fuel costs per year.
An Opposing View
Not everyone is convinced, though, that iPads and similar tablets are the wave of the future for airline IFE.
“These systems are bad, because they take up room and use up space on the tray,” says Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot and author at Ask The Pilot. “And the mechanics are awkward for first and business class where you have lie-flat seats.”
“In everything I have seen, the emphasis remains on back-of-the-seat systems,” Smith adds, citing several recent cabin designs at airlines like Air France, all of which are offering in-the-seat, big-screen experiences.
This is not the first time airlines have flirted with personal handheld entertainment systems, Smith reminds ReadWriteWeb. Back in the day, TWA and American Airlines used to provide small video consoles on flights that played tapes of movies for passengers. Obviously, that didn’t turn out to be the answer.
Not Everyone Wants An iPad
While Smith acknowledges that tablet-based IFEs make for lighter planes, he points out that newer, lighter in-seat IFEs can weigh 80% less than current models, which puts them very near the weight class of a tablet.
On the other hand, it can cost anywhere from $1.5 million to $2.2 million to refurbish a plane with such systems, and they usually incur significant ongoing maintenance costs. Using tablets could help cut those refurbishment and maintenance costs, since tablets can easily be swapped out for repair or replacement.
In addition, airlines have to provide tablets only to actual passengers who didn’t already bring their own, and some passengers might not want to watch movies and so would decline the device. Empty seats don’t get them, either, saving even more weight and expense.
In classic airline fashion, they’ll likely do yield management analysis to precisely calculate how many tablets they’ll need for each flight. (If you’re the last one to board the plane, you’ll have to hope they got their figures right.)
Beyond the iPad
If airlines really are committed to the in-flight tablet path, they may be able to recoup even more savings. Airbus is offering new IFE platforms that will let passengers connect their own devices to the on-board entertainment or connect their tablet’s content to the seat-back screen.
That would support the tablet but still let the airline claim some differentiation from its competitors.
For their part, the airlines aren’t tipping their hands on their current and future plans. Singapore Airlines, Scoot, and US-based Delta, which is rumored to be trial-running an iPad-based system, all declined to comment for this story.
Roll Your Own
Eventually, with the increase of broadband availability on flights, airlines may not even bother to provide proprietary content at all: passengers will bring their own, or surf online to find their own entertainment. And as tablet penetration continues to increase, more and more passengers will likely tote their own tablets onto the plane.
We may never see this in the air (video below), but with an increasingly connected world, distracting passengers with their own connections and favorite content may become the typical airline flight plan.
It’s really up to the passengers to decide. If airlines decide they can’t acquire additional passengers or revenue with dedicated seat-back in-flight entertainment systems, they’ll happily abandon them for tablets - either the customers' own or rentals/loaners. Similarly, if they can’t entice travelers with proprietary content, they’ll quickly move on to letting customers bring (or download) their own.
Let’s just hope they add power jacks at every seat so the screen doesn’t go dark just before you get the most exciting part of that episode of Lost you were watching on your iPad.
Images courtesy of Shutterstock, Airbus and Singapore Airlines.