It’s hard to believe that in 1965 all the world’s airlines voted to outlaw movies on airplanes as an unnecessary and costly frill. Today an economy passenger on Singapore Airlines’ new Airbus A380 has access to 100 movies, 180 television shows, and 700 audio CDs. With Boeing and Airbus backlogged with orders for more than 7000 new airplanes, more and more passengers will have an opportunity to be wowed by an in-flight entertainment system soon.
A few years ago, such a selection would be available only to business or first class-passengers, but the airlines have started moving formerly premium IFE services to the main cabin passengers, who are actually more likely to use them.
”In economy class, airlines want to provide a distraction and sense of space that allows you to focus and not be concerned that you might feel constricted in your seat,” says Neil James, the director of corporate sales and marketing for Panasonic Avionics Corp., of Lakeforest, Calif., a major provider of in-flight entertainment systems.
Virgin America, of Burlingame, Calif., has made in-flight entertainment a central part of its flying experience. Launching only last August and currently flying to seven major destinations in the United States, Virgin America’s system, called Red, is based on Panasonic’s latest IFE technology.
Not only can passengers listen to thousands of MP3s or watch satellite TV through Red, they can also use the system to order premium movies or a meal. At any time during the flight, passengers can swipe their credit card and then use the interactive display to pick what they want (basic drinks like soda, water, and coffee are free and are ordered the same way). The order is transmitted via Wi-Fi from the seat-back unit to the cabin crew at the back of the aircraft, who fulfills orders as they arrive. This keeps the aisles free of food trolleys and spreads out the crew’s workload over the whole flight.
Virgin also wants Red to create a friendly ”social atmosphere” on each flight. For instance, passengers can use the system for online chats with other passengers and are encouraged to voice their likes and dislikes about the airline. According to Virgin, they’ve already incorporated some of their passengers’ suggestions for improvement.
In general, though, in-flight entertainment provided by most American airline companies lags behind that of their international competitors. Singapore Airlines, for example, flies both the longest distance flights (10 371 statute miles) and the longest duration flights (over 18 and a half hours), and considers IFE systems to be psychological necessities for their passengers.
”For many carriers, IFE systems are a nice add-on or a nice frill; they’re absolutely essential for us,” says James Boyd, a spokesperson for Singapore Airlines. Especially for longer flights, an IFE system can provide the sense of control for the passenger in an otherwise powerless situation. ”Airlines tell you when you have to come to the airport, when you can board, when the aircraft is going to leave, how long it’s going to be aloft, when you can get out of your seats, and that creates an enormous amount of stress for passengers,” he adds. For more see the sidebar: "The Psychology of Comfortable Air Travel"