Tight seats, reheated meals and that awkward feeling of sitting within 50 metres of 331 other people – that about sums up the Qantas economy experience on the 16-hour red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne.
In fact, that's the reality of long-haul air travel and, while it may sound terrible, for newlyweds Melina Abbey and Julian Saheed it was one of the best flights of their month-long US honeymoon. So what made the difference between their long but enjoyable trip home on Qantas and their short hops around the US on American Airlines?
It wasn’t the food or the cabin service but rather a small touchscreen loaded with films, TV shows, music and games – otherwise known as Qantas’ inflight entertainment system (IFE). The system left such an impression on Abbey that she says she would consider flying Qantas for her next journey – even if it costs a little extra.
Her sentiment will be welcome news for Qantas as it prepares – along with the rest of the world’s airlines – to pour a lot of money into the next generation of inflight entertainment.
Distracting the brain from the pain
In terms of how Australian airlines are currently navigating the impending IFE revolution; both Qantas and Virgin are trialing handing out tablet computers (iPads and Samsung Galaxy tablets respectively) that stream content wirelessly from a server in the plane.
Even budget airline Jetstar is getting in on the action, offering its customers the facility to rent iPads preloaded with content. This all falls in line with the moves by airlines to enable onboard internet access on selected flights.
The aim is to make the flying experience as “connected and entertaining” as possible, according to Airline Passenger Experience magazine’s editor-in-chief, Mary Kirby.
“It’s all about distracting the brain from the pain,” Kirby says.
By “pain” she means the relentless push to cram more passengers into increasingly crowded planes and their awkward one-size-fits-all seats. The airline game is a tough one at the best of times and adding more passengers per flight means more revenue. This imperative inevitably means airlines need something to keep the passengers happy and inflight entertainment is actually a handy, cost-effective solution.
“It’s of more value for an airline to add two rows worth of seats and have a good inflight entertainment system rather than do the opposite and give passengers more legroom,” Kirby says.
She adds that because more business passengers are choosing to fly economy, airlines are using IFE as a way to keep the experience enjoyable for all passengers.
“Word of mouth is going to be so powerful in the future”, Kirby says, adding that the passenger experience is quickly becoming a key factor in why customers choose to fly with a particular airline.
But passenger experience isn’t the only incentive for airlines to upgrade their IFE systems.
According to David Flynn, editor of Australian Business Traveller, airlines introducing new IFE systems are a “lower cost and extra revenue” strategy.
He says that by moving to a tablet-based entertainment system, airlines will greatly reduce the upfront costs of installation and repairs. He adds that tablets weigh less than the current systems installed in planes, so by upgrading the IFE system, an airline indirectly saves on fuel costs.
According to Flynn, the “extra revenue” comes in the form of add-on sales. Whether it’s through pay-per-view movies or pitches to buy a box set of the TV series you have been enjoying on your flight, Flynn says there are plenty of opportunities for airlines to squeeze more money out of passengers through these new IFE systems.
The next big thing
While we are yet to see tablet based IFE become commonplace on most Australian flights, the next possibility with IFE is already looming over the horizon. Airlines are already looking into the possibility of beaming inflight entertainment straight to a passenger's own device. The systems known as ‘wireless IFE’.
American Airlines is aiming to have a wireless IFE solution – GoGo Vision – rolled out across 400 of its planes by the end of the year. The service allows users to access the internet and download rental films onto their own device. Passengers pay an additional fee for the service (99 cents per TV show and around $3.99 per movie) but the content remains usable on their device for 72 hours.
However, there may be turbulence on the horizon for wireless IFE. Kirby says that movie studios aren’t yet convinced that wireless IFE won’t facilitate content piracy. This concern is exaggerated by the fact that movie studios give airlines access to pre-DVD release films in order to enhance their service.
But while that debate rages, innovation continues to pulse through the world’s passenger carrier fleets. With more people being crammed onto planes the seats aren’t getting any bigger but we may soon be too distracted to even notice.