NB: This is a guest article by Greg Dicum, co-founder and president of MondoWindow.
Consider the airplane cabin. It’s an unequivocally crucial part of the travel arc and yet, for the most part, it’s a black hole.
Travelers are using all manner of technologies, new and old, before they fly and indeed right up to the gate, but once the airplane doors close and the devices are powered off, they’re off the radar - suddenly reappearing somewhere else a few hours later.
In between, unless they brought a good book, they’re treated to a handful of mediocre movies shown on mediocre equipment. It’s hardly the highlight of the travel experience.
But that’s beginning to change. To those of us involved with in-flight entertainment (IFE), these are exciting times: the model of airline-selected Hollywood movies shown on airline-supplied screens that has dominated IFE for its entire existence (the first regular service was from TWA in 1961, but the first ever in-flight movie was shown in 1921) is on the verge of complete disruption.
Two things are transforming IFE:
1. Passenger-supplied consumer digital hardware
Just take a look at all the equipment people are putting in the X-ray trays at security: laptops, tablets, smartphones--sometimes even two or three devices--are in nearly everyone’s carryons.
All of this hardware is far superior to anything you’ll find built into a seatback, and it’s a huge opportunity from the point of view of airlines: passengers pay for it, maintain it, upgrade it, and passengers suck it up when it won’t work or breaks.
This is more than just a convenience for airlines. IFE systems are the largest single line item in the cost of outfitting a plane, and can easily cost 10 percent of the entire outlay for a new aircraft - $3 million to $8 million.
They’re also heavy (so cost real money to fly around all over the place) and are hopelessly behind consumer technology: by the time equipment is certified and installed, it’s already a couple of years out of date--at the start of its ten year service life.
At the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg last month (it’s OK if you’ve never heard of it -- but it’s one of the two big onboard amenity gatherings each year) we saw that a number of different companies are starting to take advantage of this passenger-supplied hardware by marketing IFE systems that stream content wirelessly to passenger devices.
Our favorite is MondoWindow partner TriaGnoSys, but there are also very impressive offerings from Lufthansa Systems and others.
2. Internet connectivity
In-flight internet has been slow in coming - the first consumer product, ConneXion by Boeing, launched in 2004 on Lufthansa but flopped because passengers didn’t have many wifi devices and weren’t quite as addicted to the Internet as we are now.
Plus, these systems require massive capital outlays and lots of difficult engineering (just try and build a communications satellite and put it in geostationary orbit for less than half a billion dollars).
But now in-flight connectivity is coming online in force. Gogo, the leading provider, now serves 1,500 commercial aircraft and is upgrading its network to LTE speeds.
A new generation of satellites from ViaSat and others is going online, promising real global broadband from a host of resellers, including Row44 and Airbus spinoff OnAir, as well as JetBlue partner LiveTV (watch for JetBlue wifi by the end of this year).
So what is next?
Now the question of the complete disruption of in-flight entertainment is one of "when", not "if". There will come a time in the not very far future when travel technologists like us will be able to take for granted passenger hardware and broadband connectivity in the airline cabin. I think we’ll see it by the end of 2015 on domestic US flights.
Whenever it happens, it will raise a game changing question for IFE: if passengers can do anything they want on the internet, what will IFE look like?
It certainly won’t look like it does now: if you can spend your entire flight on Facebook, why should the airline waste money licensing a handful of movies on your behalf?
As it is, when was the last time you chose a flight based on what movie was playing? At least you can find out on Kayak or Hipmunk whether or not your flight will have wifi before you book.
To get a speculative glimpse of what IFE will look like in the future, we need to boil down the IFE experience to those elements that are relevant to the very special in-flight use case.
In a nutshell, in-flight is special because passengers are moving from one place to another (aka "traveling"), yet they’re sitting still for several hours limited to whatever they brought with them to pass the time.
I’ve identified only three things that will endure in the new connected IFE world (if you can think of others, please chime in in the comments!):
1. Location services
Many of you will have seen the Rockwell Collins Airshow. That basic map that shows a little cartoon of where your plane is tells you nothing more than where you are and when you are going to get where you’re going. This by itself is enough to make the moving map the most-viewed channel on the great majority of IFE systems.
Why? It’s because the map is the only content that is relevant to one hundred percent of the people on the plane. And it’s constantly changing, encouraging repeat visits.
No matter what changes happen in IFE or the passenger experience, traveling is about moving from one place to another, so the map will always be relevant.
2. In-flight shopping
Think SkyMall and Duty Free. What makes these shopping experiences appealing? And more to the point, what would make them worth considering when you also have Amazon at your fingertips? It’s not price or selection, it’s context: they are available only while you’re in flight.
Not only that, but the delivery of the product is instant (in the case of Duty Free) or very soon (in some SkyMall scenarios).
Combine that with the Internet and the daily deals model pioneered by Groupon and you have powerful in-flight content. And it’s already flying: at the end of last year, Southwest started offering a travel guide in a couple of their destinations (Chicago and Denver) that also includes in-flight-only deals for those cities.
3. On-board social networking
Everyone on board a plane has in common that they are, well, on board a plane coming from the same place and going to the same place at the same time. As people become more and more used to chatting with strangers based on shared circumstances and goals - we now do it all the time on Twitter, for example - bringing this social impulse to the cabin will be a successful way of engaging passengers.
Oh, and look--that’s happening already too! Planely, a Danish company, has devised a platform for on-board social networking. And KLMand others have been experimenting with "Social Seating" features that let passengers choose (or, let’s face it, avoid) seatmates based on social profiles.
Now things get interesting
Okay then, so in the future (on the magical greenhouse-like Airbus concept plane, perhaps), the content and engagement side of flying might just be worth your time. Got it.
But think about this: if passengers can assume they will have broadband on their own devices, why should those remaining in-flight services come from airlines at all?
Each and every consumer electronic device on a plane is pre-configured with the passenger’s existing digital relationships. It has Google cookies, Amazon downloads, Facebook apps, AOL subscription information, and so on.
Those are the companies that are the experts in engaging our minds; the airlines’ job is to move our bodies from one place to another--their role as content curators for passengers has only developed because of technological limitations. And those limitations are crumbling.
Any big consumer-centered digital company, with its hundreds of millions of users, always has a percentage of its users in the air at any moment.
If those users are not cut off from digital services, then it makes sense for big digital companies to offer special versions of their services for existing customers who happen to be flying. (There are a lot of reasons why it makes sense, but the biggest is because when people are in flight, they are at their most valuable as advertising targets.)
Location services, shopping, and social networking are all within the existing capabilities of the digital conglomerates. They do these things better than anyone.
Once they can reach airline passengers reliably, it would be pointless for airlines to try and compete for mindshare--as pointless as trying to fly from one continent to another on Twitter’s little blue wings.
NB: This is a guest article by Greg Dicum, co-founder and president of MondoWindow.
NB2:TLabs Showcase - MondoWindow.
NB3: In-flight overhead screens image via Shutterstock.
NB4: Here is some footage detailing the first in-flight movie referenced above: