Sit Back, Relax, and Enjoy the Entertainment

Modern in-flight entertainment systems are more than just eye candy

7 min read

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"

Designing for the Future

Studies indicate that better-designed IFE systems provide passengers with a greater perception of control. This means that airlines have to create systems that appeal to everyone, from those who like to socialize with their fellow passengers to those who would rather be left alone with their IFE system for the entire trip. But developing an IFE system is not as simple as ringing up an IFE supplier and saying, ”I’ll take 20 of your latest IFE systems sitting on the shelf over there, and could you please deliver them by next Tuesday?”

For starters, a complete system must integrate the entertainment system hardware with the seat itself. ”An airline will select a seat supplier; they will select an IFE supplier, and then they say, ’You seat supplier, and you IFE supplier, you need to get together and come up with a solution,’” explains Ken Brady, an IEEE associate member and chief engineer at Thales Avionics, the other major player in the IFE industry.

Together the companies must come up with a solution that meets both the physical constraints imposed by the airframe manufacturer and the airline’s delivery schedule, with stiff penalties attached for late deliveries. ”It is very interesting in that it is not the traditional bidders’ model you think of where I have a contract, I have a set of requirements, I am going to meet those requirements and fly the product,” says Brady.

Panasonic’s James agrees with Brady. ”It’s complicated, with lots of politicking back and forth,” between all the parties involved, he says.

This complicated development and integration process is made even more difficult due to the time it takes to actually get an IFE system in place. ”Customers are going to be making a selection today in 2008, taking delivery in 2013, and then operating it for another 15 or 20 years,” explains James.

And making the wrong choice can be costly. On the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the Thales IFE list price is reportedly between US $3 million and $4 million per aircraft, and the system consists of 2040 separate items. According to a recent Newsweek story, a fully built-out business-class seat can cost up to $35 000, while first-class seats are even pricier.

The fast pace of technological change doesn’t help either: while traditional IFE systems have life spans of three to five years, airlines usually upgrade their seats only every five to 10 years. In the past, this resulted in many airlines flying for years with IFE systems well past their prime. To combat obsolescence, current systems are built to be modular, so they can be improved and upgraded without replacing seats. For example, in Panasonic’s latest eX2 system, many of the components have their own firmware and software built in. Panasonic can tell exactly which versions of its IFE system components are aboard each aircraft at all times, and if an airline wants an upgrade, they only have to replace the necessary components.

Increased modularity requires modern IFE systems to rely more heavily on software than hardware. For example, when the Boeing 777 was developed, the avionics package required 2.6 million lines of code, and the IFE system had only 250 000 lines. Compare that with the Boeing 787, which has more than 6.5 million lines of code (excluding commercial off-the-shelf code) in the avionics package, and almost as many in its IFE system, according to Panasonic.

Software is generally easier to change than hardware, but it also has a second advantage: it’s weightless. IFE system manufacturers and seat suppliers have always looked for ways to reduce the weight, but there is more urgency with today’s fuel prices. A savings of even a few kilograms multiplied by 150 or more seats adds up rapidly. (In general, the airlines estimate that 100 kg of extra weight increases the fuel burn rate by 4 kg per hour, according to the International Air Transport Association. At today’s fuel prices, that adds up to a cost of $4.00 every hour the plane is in the air.) Recently, U.S. Airways decided to remove their outdated IFE systems to save weight in the face of rising fuel costs.

Other airlines have tried to cut weight by taking the IFE systems out of the seats. Alaska Airlines, for example, rents a digEplayer (actually developed by an Alaska Airlines baggage handler) for $10 on flights that are longer than three hours. Emirates, of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, uses its IFE system to save weight in a different way: it plans on removing all seat-pocket paper—in-flight magazines, entertainment guides, duty-free shopping guides—from its A380 aircraft because the content will be available on the IFE system. Expect this approach to be copied by other airlines as well.

Where to Next?

In the near future, many airlines are looking to support IFE systems that interface with passengers’ personal devices, such as iPods. The big question is whether airlines should allow downloads from their IFE systems to these devices. Media licensing is one of the big costs in an IFE system: while the total IFE market is around $1.5 billion, between $300 and $400 million go to paying for content, according to Richard Owen, the executive director of the World Airline Entertainment Association, a nonprofit group made up of airlines, IFE manufacturers and content suppliers.

”The studios are particularly concerned about emerging markets like China and Russia and the piracy that has occurred with movies,” says Owen, noting that explosive growth in air travel is expected in these regions.

The use of cellphones aboard aircraft will also be an area for future IFE interaction. Right now, Emirates and Qantas Airways plan to allow passengers to use their cellphones; other international carriers will likely follow if phone use turns out to be acceptable to other passengers. The U.S. government, which doesn’t allow phone use, is most likely watching these developments closely.

And after several false starts, in-flight Internet connectivity may finally be arriving. Owen calls 2008 ”the year of connectivity”: On August 20, American Airlines launched Wi-Fi service for flights on its Boeing 767-200 aircraft between New York and Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami for a fee of $12.95. Five other U.S. airlines—Jet Blue, Alaska, Delta, Continental, and Southwest—have plans to roll out access in six months to a year. Air France, Lufthansa, and Qantas are looking to follow suit shortly.

Another thing to watch for is more passenger/IFE system personalization. Passengers may find that when they get to their seats, the system greets them by name, notes their destination, and asks if they need a restaurant recommendation or reservation. It may also let them know that an acquaintance from LinkedIn or Facebook is also on the flight or in the destination city.

”If you want to have the same experience [at home] that airlines are putting on aircraft now, you would have to have your laptop, your set-top box, your TiVo, everything all hooked up through one remote and one screen along with a comfortable reclining easy chair,” says Panasonic’s James.

Now, if only the airlines could make sure that my luggage and I arrive at the same time.

About the Author

Contributing Editor Robert N. Charette is an IEEE member and risk-analysis expert in Spotsylvania, Va. His blog, Risk Factor, is at

To Probe Further

Susan Karlin, Take Off, Plug In, Dial Up; IEEE Spectrum, August 2001

In-Flight Entertainment System: State of the Art and Research Directions, Liu, Hao; Semantic Media Adaptation and Personalization, Second International Workshop on 17-18 Dec. 2007 Page(s):241 � 244

World Airline Entertainment Association's history of IFEs:

For more see the sidebar: "The Psychology of Comfortable Air Travel"

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