Aircraft Cabin Management discusses with experts at the vanguard of innovation about how pandemic consumer habits have laid the foundation for a passenger-driven revolution in terms of inflight entertainment (IFE)

The move to more advanced onboard technologies has been undoubtedly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic as airlines seek to fulfil the expectations of their passengers who became far more technology-literate sitting in the comfort of their home during lockdown, writes Aimée Turner.

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But what do passengers really want now in these less turbulent, post-COVID times? Have their needs and motivations tangibly changed and what does that mean for the future of inflight entertainment?

Ben Griffin, vice president mobility, OneWeb, thinks needs and motivations are evolving and that these emerging passenger behaviours are quite new compared to what the inflight connectivity and entertainment (IFEC) community has seen before.

He says this on the basis of new research which the satcom services provider commissioned through wanting to understand what really matters to airline passengers as travel resumes in a post-pandemic environment. Understanding that could go some way, he says, to helping the airline industry better cater to future passenger needs by leveraging super-fast and super-reliable in-flight connectivity – which is what OneWEB is evidently planning to offer.

The results were published during the latest Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg back in June and there were some interesting ramifications for IFE system developers. Namely, that although the research acknowledges that the skies are in many ways the last realm of disconnection, the benefits of IFC are becoming far more compelling and extensive, with the potential to positively impact the entire travel experience – which includes enhancing passengers’ interaction and engagement with IFE.

OneWeb is certain that airlines will need to provide high quality IFC as a standardised part of their offering once it is available. “The expectation for home-equivalent connectivity is growing – and will continue to grow, as the younger, digitally sophisticated generation takes to the skies,” it says.

Consumer demand

Andy Masson, vice president product & portfolio management at Panasonic Avionics Corporation, agrees and points to the business’s own research that has demonstrated a similar shift – not only in behaviours, but also expectations. The high-level conclusions of Panasonic’s studies reveal that a multiscreen experience has become a significant way of life for the passenger who has become highly accustomed to remote working from home and who has therefore heavily integrated their use of devices which has become the ‘insitu’ norm.

That willingness to run integrated multiple devices means that for the first time tablet technology has become arguably more relevant than its laptop equivalent in the aircraft cabin. This emerging reality together with a desire for consumer-grade technology accompanied by a slick industrial design element constituted items on a design wishlist that became a starting point for reflection for Panasonic.

“Aerospace had started to lag behind,” says Masson who spent lockdown thinking about how to achieve significant weight savings through exploiting advanced screen and power supply technology. He came up with the outline for what is now known as Astrova – launched at this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo – which is an IFE system which boasts consumer-grade thin screen technology and substantially lighter weight overall.

Alongside features such as high-fidelity audio, dedicated 67W of USB-C power to fast-charge passenger devices and programmable LED lighting, the cinema-grade 4K OLED screens with High Dynamic Range (HDR) allows passengers to connect their own devices to create their own multi-screen, multi-purpose environment to which they became so accustomed at home during the lockdowns of recent years.

Keeping it real

Fulfilling the demands of a more demanding clientèle is certainly having a discernible impact on how manufacturers are approaching system design – but are manufacturers driving themselves too hard, too fast to innovate? And, will the pressure to innovate mean some risk taking a technology path that results in their chosen solutions becoming prematurely obsolete?

For David Whelan, an IFE expert at UK-based Valour Consultancy, the best way to proceed is by listening to what passengers – and by extension, airlines – really want. “This typically means steering clear of flavour of the week trends and focusing on getting the fundamentals right,” he says.

Whelan believes that what most passengers want from IFE systems is a quality screen with an easy-to-use interface and a broad array of interesting content, warning that while novelty functions can be fun for travellers they are unlikely to be anything more than that.

That being said, Whelan says, the one trend which is a real value-add for passengers is the introduction of Bluetooth compatible IFE systems which allow passengers to connect their personal headphones. “Given the state of this market on the ground, this is a pretty safe bet for IFE vendors. We’ve seen this technology come to market in recent years and rolling this out successfully could be an important differentiator over the coming years,” he says.

He identifies Safran’s Bluetooth technology as a particular strong contender in terms of future-proofed innovation. Safran, Whelan says, has managed to design the technology to create a 3-4ft conical shape which isolates the range to the individual passenger seat which prevents the chaos of having multiple passengers trying to work out which IFE system to connect to.

Flexibility

Michael Childers is a content management consultant with 43 years’ experience in inflight entertainment who chairs the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) Technology Committee, and has been lauded for his leadership in the digital transformation of the passenger experience.

In terms of hardware, he salutes industry players such as Panasonic which has identified the need to swap out components of the system rather than risk leaving the original technology on board for 10 years in an effort to move quickly when new business models emerge. Indeed, Panasonic’s Masson says the business did indeed want to counter a risk of built-in obsolescence through making Astrova modular as this flexibility would not only allow carriers to update cabins without a complete or costly interior change but would also offer the ability to swap out components such as the USB-C charging unit of Bluetooth transmitter without having to change the whole screen. “It immediately stops being a device and starts being a platform with the software also enabling much more flexibility,” he says.

According to Childers, there is a conversation albeit uncomfortable that many IFE system providers need to have because of the impactful changes to the passenger experience as a result of the pandemic, all of which combine a social, business and technological evolution in the way that content is consumed.

“During the pandemic,” he says, “cinemas closed and there were constraints on social gatherings, making the consumption of content at home much more important.” He explains that this phenomenon accelerated content providers’ adoption of direct-to-consumer (D2C) services like Disney+, HBO Max, Paramount+ and Peacock. Exponential growth in such services took place during the pandemic, and as cinemas began to re-open, most of these services—with the notable exception of Netflix—have continued to grow.

Childers notes that the early window advantage of cinemas – often some 90 days or so in advance of home entertainment – has been reduced to around 45 days, with the previous window likely gone forever. IFE’s early window of some 60 to 90 days after box office release remains, and so therefore immediately places IFE at a disadvantage against the 45-day D2C window.

“But the most important change is in the business model,” says Childers, “D2C enables the content provider to license content directly to the consumer via subscriptions, disintermediating the preponderance of intermediaries like DVD suppliers, and the providers of satellite, cable and over-the-air television.”

This means that some years from now, as connectivity bandwidth increases and its cost decreases, passengers are likely to access their own D2C subscriptions on the aircraft and airline licensing of content will be largely a thing of the past. The passenger will provide the content, the airline will provide the pipe.

Childers says that the reality today is that IFE revenue for content providers is tiny in terms of total average gross for a box office film and as soon as a D2C division of a studio believes it will make more money by telling a potential subscriber that access is universal even at 30,000 ft, the resulting growth in its subscriber base will mean it can easily walk away from IFE licensing deals.

Delivery mechanism

Even so, as Childers notes, you still have to have a delivery mechanism to back up that new business model and that should come when connectivity bandwidth increases with availability, accompanying costs decrease and there are new ways to get the content to the aircraft using technologies such as onboard edge caching using onboard servers.

He says that could take up to a decade to become a reality although airlines should not struggle to see the sense in investing the US$50 million average annual spend on licensing  in supporting any additional costs for providing the pipe. The industry remains reluctant to talk about charting a migration path that integrates IFE content and connectivity into a single system however, Indeed, it’s a difficult conversation to be had both in the IFE divisions at studios and at the system provider level because it means a major change in the way the current system. “IFE is not dead, far from it,” says Childers, “it’s simply some elements that are changing: how content gets to the aircraft and how it’s paid for.”

He predicts that IFE and connectivity will no longer represent separate services that airlines must figure out how to integrate. Rather, they are two paths to the same destination that are incrementally merging into a single service supported by a digital experience platform and that as bandwidth increases and cost decreases, content storage will begin to move off the aircraft and into the cloud.

In the home environment, he points out, Content Delivery Networks (CDN) do a respectable job of enabling streaming. But in environments like aircraft, trains and ships, CDNs are instantly constrained. Caching popular internet content at the edge of the network is already a common practice among internet service providers as a means of addressing this issue. But reaching subscribers in these more constrained inflight environments will require the use of smaller, deep edge CDN providers.

The Streaming Video Technology Alliance (SVTA) already has an open-caching working group addressing these issues, with the participation of IFE companies like AERQ, Hughes, Intelsat, Netskrt, Panasonic, Thales and Viasat. In addition, the APEX technology committee addressed this issue at its May TECH Conference and Workshop, revisited edge caching at APEX EXPO in Long Beach in October and plans to do so again in early 2023.

Childers understands that there will likely be significant resistance from major system providers in the market who are heavily invested in the status quo and, as in most businesses facing step changes in industrial business models, it could be those businesses which are not heavily invested in the past that thrive. Within the IFE delivery industry, it could well be businesses that employ cloud-based workflows and who can respond from the time they receive a mezzanine file to the time they can deliver content integration within 48 hours as opposed to 45-60 days that will prevail.

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