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Will we keep on taking the tablets?

Posted 22 June 2017 · Add Comment

New US and British governments regulations, which prevent passengers carrying electronic devices larger than a cell phone on flights from across the MENA region, may affect the latest in-flight entertainment trend. Steve Nichols investigates.

Are we poised for a sea-change in the way airlines implement in-flight entertainment (IFE)? Could we see embedded IFE systems being ripped out in favour of passengers using their own devices? What happens if the ban of such devices gets wider traction?
These are questions that many airlines are wrestling with as they weigh up the benefits of adopting a solely ‘bring-your-own-device” (BYOD) approach to IFE.
Embedded IFE equipment is heavy, costly and probably out of date before it is even installed. Without the screens, carriers can also install slimmer seats, which means they can accommodate more passengers and generate more revenue.
By streaming content over wireless systems, passengers can have access to a wider array of content and carriers don’t have to maintain screens as they bring their own portable devices on board.
Most passengers carry their own devices, such as tablets and laptops, which are normally more advanced than the IFE screens staring at them from the back of the seat.
With BYOD the onus – and expense – is on the passenger to ensure they have the latest equipment.
All airlines need do is install a few Wi-Fi wireless access points and a media server and they are set. Add in a satellite or air-to-ground in-flight connection and passengers get the internet too.
SITAONAIR’s 2016 annual passenger IT trends survey found that customers still enjoy their in-flight entertainment experience, but are more likely to connect through the increasing number of devices they have brought with them.
It found passengers, who wanted much more choice and personalisation from their in-flight experience, were increasingly switching to use their own devices during flights.
A trend for a second screen was also emerging, with 10% of passengers who took part in the survey switching between their own devices and seat-back screens during flights.
The survey found 65% of passengers would prefer to access entertainment via their own devices – providing a real opportunity for airlines to increase connectivity with passengers via the medium in which they preferred to communicate.
Bluebox Aviation launched its portable wireless platform, Bluebox Wow, last year. Bluebox Wow helps airlines introduce wirelessly streamed content to passengers in any aircraft cabin, supporting streamed video, audio, moving map, games, digital magazines, and Bluebox’s Seat2Seat networked messaging.
Kevin Clark, CEO of Bluebox Aviation Systems, said: “We ship around 4,000 units of tablet-based (iPad) IFE per year. There are a number of iPad platforms up to the 12.9in iPad Pro, which provides a fantastic option for premium cabin.
“An example of this is its deployment in the premium cabin on board the upgraded Hawaiian Airlines A330 fleet. There is still a seat-back system in economy, but the premium cabin offers a custom, reclining seat with the Bluebox tablet placed in a special holder.”
Clark said it had deployed its Bluebox Ai product on both Etihad and Oman airlines.
“I think there will always be a role for embedded IFE, but the portables and wireless streaming technology is providing some interesting dynamics.
“Firstly, the systems are much cheaper to deploy than fitted systems and so can be applied to aircraft/routes that would not traditionally offer IFE. The content mix is available to support such deployments, such as more TV/short, “snackable” content than movies.
“Also some of the experiences offered are better from wireless/BYOD systems. For example, games can be much newer and more dynamic when compared with the normal offerings available for seat-back systems.”
He added that the systems provide a means of extending the life of aircraft in service while maintaining a high quality IFE experience.
“Why invest in a new embedded system when the airframe may only be in service for another two-three years?”
One issue is that film studios don’t allow the streaming of early-window content (also called early release) to a passenger-owned device.
“There are some that will allow streaming of early-window content to an airline-controlled device,” said Clark. “But this means that the latest movies are not available to passengers using their own devices.
“We have a version of Bluebox Ai, called Bluebox Hybrid, that is approved for connecting to streaming systems, but that can also host early-window content preloaded to the device.
“This has proven to be very popular where airlines wish to be able to offer the latest movies to some passengers,” Clark concluded.
Jan-Peter Gaense, director project and certification at Lufthansa Systems, said it had found that BYOD suited airlines that were not yet ready to commit to connectivity. This may be because they have not yet found the right business model or because they want to wait for better technologies, such as flat panel antennas or the availability of an air-to-ground solution.
He said these airlines were likely to go for a portable wireless IFE solution, or for a fixed installed wireless IFE that could later be integrated with IFC.
“It is not a matter of technology, but I don’t think we will see any traditional carrier remove an embedded IFE solution from their long-haul aircraft any time soon, said Gaense. “There is an expectation by passengers that they will have an in-seat screen on long-haul flights.”
Gaense said that Lufthansa Systems was in discussions with many MENA airlines about fitting a BYOD solution.
“With BoardConnect, we try and make it easy for the airline to make a decision now. Ancillary revenue partners can help them find the right business case, plus our BoardConnect portable system can always be swapped out at any time for a fixed, installed solution,” he said.
As an added advantage of BYOD, Lufthansa Systems says that 80 tonnes of jet fuel could be saved annually on a Boeing 767 with 260 seats, thanks to the reduced weight of its wireless technology.
Airlines currently using BoardConnect include Lufthansa and Qantas. Lufthansa Systems says it can serve content to up to 250 passengers at once using just five Wi-Fi access points.
American Airlines (AA) is one of the latest to lead the surge towards BYOD in-flight entertainment. It says its forthcoming new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft will be delivered without seat-back video, leaving passengers to use their own personal devices.
It says it won’t feature seat-back video screens on the Boeing aircraft because almost all travellers now carry mobile phones, tablets and laptops. It added that satellite-based systems have improved on-board internet speed and access, which will enhance the viewing experience.
The airline added: “We know in-flight entertainment is important to our customers, which is why we’ve committed to offering free, streaming high-quality movies and music, and to investing in fast satellite-based internet access and power at every seat across our domestic fleet.
“More than 90% of our passengers already bring a device or screen with them when they fly. Those phones and tablets are continually upgraded, they’re easy to use, and most importantly they are the technology that our customers have chosen.
“So it makes sense for American to focus on giving customers the best entertainment and fast connection options, rather than installing seat-back monitors that will be obsolete within a few years.”
Passengers on American Airlines with personal electronic devices and Wi-Fi will be able to watch free movies and TV shows from an extensive on-board library, as well as free live television channels, without purchasing an in-flight internet connection.
AA says it is committed to seat-back screens on its wide-bodies and some of its narrow-bodies used for specific flights, as well as its Boeing 777s, 787s, Airbus A330s, and A350s, which begin arriving next year.
The airline is also committed to seat-back screens on its three-class A321s, and 40 current-generation B737s, which will be delivered this year with power at every seat.
By the summer of 2018, AA says it will have completed installation of the faster satellite-based Wi-Fi on half of its narrow-bodies, with all completed by the end of 2019.

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