Seatback digital billboards: Airline trays are about to get a tech-heavy makeoverNews / Technology | OnlineBy Nick Vivion | January 22, 2014Share This article was originally published on Thanks to Clear Channel Airports, one of the most unchanged elements of the in-flight experience is about to get a makeover: the seat-back tray.The SmartTray, the product line created by the eponymous Smart Tray International, is a tablet-focused experience that will make it easier for passengers to secure their tablet devices throughout the flight.Basically, the tablets can become a de-facto in-seat entertainment system, thanks to an intelligent design that considers how travelers use tablets in flight. The setup still maintains space for drinks and snacks, while also freeing up lap space.The significant partnership announcement comes after the United States Federal Aviation Adminstration relaxed the rules for Personal Entertainment Devices in-flight, making it possible for travelers to use the devices from gate to gate - and increasing the need for a tray table that can accomodate these devices more seamlessly into the experience.The company has created three models that can accomodate different ways of tablet integration - and also allows for airlines to offer their own devices if they choose. Of course, offering devices on the plane was always a logistical headache - remember those small cassette tapes for personal players on long-haul flights in the 90s? - and so it's not likely that we'll see rapid tablet replacement of current in-flight systems.However, for budget airlines looking to add in-flight entertainment, having a set number of iPads per flight would be more affordable than taking planes out of service to retrofit. This device focus would also allow airlines to quickly upgrade to the latest technology without having to pay to again take planes out of service and replace/upgrade the equipment.The X3 model is specifically tailored to this use case, which allows for charging of airline-owned devices right in seat while also using existing or new WiFi servers to deliver streaming video. Content can also be preloaded on a device-by-device basis.Of course, tablet penetration remains low but growing fast.This means that forward-thinking airlines could retrofit planes to be more tablet-friendly, and perhaps open another ancillary revenue stream by selling content straight to customers' devices - rather than the seat-back. This would likely cannibalize some seat-back entertainment purchases, but it could also encourage content purchases from some travelers who prefer to watch movies on the larger tablet screens.Increased penetration of in-flight WiFi would also mean that airlines could offer movie downloads for a fee, for those passengers that were not able to fully download specific content in the airport. This would make the in-flight entertainment system more like iTunes and less like a basic DVR plus TV setup (ie. live TV plus some on-demand content options on longer haul flights). Basically, this could open up all the world's content to in-flight consumption - with a percentage cut or premium price for airlines.Beyond the trays' value on the content side, the partnership with Clear Channel Airports is noteworthy because it adds another incentive for airlines looking to compare tablets to In-Flight Entertainment systems: advertising revenues. CCA has a large network of digital advertisers seeking the traveler demographic, and having direct access to seatbacks will no doubt be a lucrative proposition. Travelers might have another take on being bombarded with ads during the flight, and even though that's already occurring to some extent with current IFE systems, this is an area to watch as far as consumer tolerance for in-flight advertising.SmartTray claims that their product can be installed in minutes with only a couple of screws.