One of the Big Remaining Advantages of Built-In Entertainment Systems May Soon Disappear

Inflight Entertainment

For the last few years, people have been predicting the death of airline-provided inflight entertainment systems. With more and more people bringing their own devices and wifi becoming an onboard standard, the arguments for ditching the airline-provided systems grew stronger. That being said, there were still some benefits that couldn’t be provided by passenger-provided devices. At the APEX show last week, BAE Systems announced it had become the first to knock down one of those benefits (though it does now seem to be waffling). BAE Systems is, if the claim proves to be true, bringing “early window” content to passenger-provided devices for the first time.

Early Window Content

Hollywood and the airline industry have a long, strange history, and you wouldn’t believe how many people on both the studio side and the airline industry side work to maintain the relationships. From the airline side, there has long been an interest in providing passengers with entertainment, of course. After all, it’s the surest way to keep them happy and numb on a long flight. (Just ask Emirates why it has so many movies onboard….)

From the studio side, providing content to airlines is a great way to build an audience. It’s really effective for a TV show in that if people see one episode, they might want to keep watching more on the ground. But for movies, it’s that way as well. And in my entirely unscientific opinion, movies seem a lot better in the air than they do on the ground. There’s something about not having a better alternative while you’re up there that makes the movie seem that much better. (The effect is strong. I inexplicably enjoyed Grown Ups 2 on a flight once.)

But the studios also want to be very careful about what movies they allow to be shown and when. If a movie is opening in theaters, they don’t want to let people watch it in the air for fear of losing movie ticket revenue. But they also see value in providing films at altitude that you can’t get on DVD/digital just yet. It’s another way to keep building an audience when people normally wouldn’t be talking about the movie at all.

So it is that studios allow for what’s called “early window” content. (Hotels pay-per-view systems have this as well.) This month on Delta (and most airlines), for example, you can watch Jurassic World, among other things. Jurassic World was released into the theaters on June 12 of this year. It won’t be on DVD until October 20, and Redbox/Netflix will come a month later. Some movies that were released in July (like Ant-Man) will be onboard this month as well, giving an even earlier screening to travelers in the air. For travelers it’s a great way to see a movie if they missed it in the theater but can’t get it at home.

This arrangement has worked well for studios and airlines… then wifi came along. Once the idea of offering movies via streaming became reality, studios got nervous. They didn’t want people to be able to download movies and have them for personal use off the airplane, for free. There have been plenty of efforts to create secure solutions, but the studios haven’t felt comfortable enough to allow “early window” movies to be shown when streaming over wifi is involved. That’s why you’ll only see Jurassic World on Delta if you have a seatback screen. If you’re using Delta Studio, the system that you can use to stream to your own device, you won’t have that option.

The first step in solving this problem came back in 2012 when Lufthansa Systems got approval for early window content in its BoardConnect system. This system was designed to use wifi to stream content to both passenger-provided and airline-provided systems. But the approval for “early window” only applied to seatback units or tablets provided by the airline that would be collected at the end. The studios still weren’t comfortable allowing people to stream early window content to their own devices, fearing piracy.

This was the status quo until just last week when BAE Systems announced what Runway Girl Network coined “unthinkable.” The company said it had gained approval from two of the big Hollywood studios to stream early window content to passenger-provided devices. Despite many attempts to find holes in this announcement, Runway Girl Network (most definitely the authority on this stuff) was a believer… until Thursday. That’s when BAE backed off and said now only one of the studios was going to allow streaming on personal devices. Runway Girl Network is now rightfully skeptical after having been mislead, but if even one of the big studios does this, it will be a landmark event.

When it does happen (someday), it won’t be long before what can be shown on an airline screen will mirror what you can get on your tablet or phone. When that happens, one more reason for keeping seatback systems on airplanes will have disappeared.

[Original Window image and Clapper Board image via Shutterstock]

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31 comments on “One of the Big Remaining Advantages of Built-In Entertainment Systems May Soon Disappear

  1. If I were traveling somewhere and I forgot my tablet/laptop or it were stolen, getting on a long flight with no built-in IFE wouldn’t be a fun prospect. Totally see the advantage in relying on people to bring their own devices but as good-will I think the airlines should offer loaners if they go that path. Doesn’t take a lot of space to store a dozen or so tablets. Odds are most people will have their own devices but just in case….

    1. Loaner tablets? Just another thing to break, get stolen, need maintenance, or fail. Connect your smart phone-tablet to the power supply and use the built in WiFi.

  2. I won’t miss seatback in-your-face advertising systems one bit. In my experience, the “entertainment” provided is nothing but the most dreary trash imaginable, and while I can turn off my own screen, the flickering from other screens around me is extremely distracting. I doubt wifi streaming will change the quality or the aim of programming one bit. So… I will continue to use my own tablet with my own SD cards that contain MY choice of movies and music ALL the time — or nothing, if I don’t feel like watching/listening. Just give me some sort of power plug (I carry my own adapters, too), a nicely cushioned seat and enough room for my feet and I’ll be quite happy, thank you!

  3. I’ve never understood why anyone would want to watch a movie on the screen of a cell phone or have to sit there holding the phone/tablet for two hours. Not counting keeping kids busy and quiet, as an adult I’d rather watch something on a bigger screen that I don’t have to hold-prop up-or even carry around if I don’t need it.

    1. My thoughts exactly. I’ve had such rubbish as Grown Ups 2 put me to sleep. Tougher to do while holding the device — and I don’t like the tray table down.

  4. I disagree that they are going away ANY time soon. You are missing a number of points.

    1) Profit center
    2) See point 1
    3) No need for power
    4) SAT TV

    I know with Delta the ability to sell-sell-sell is amazing. People gleefully in coach swipe their cards to buy a movie.

    As to point 2-ish think of the advertising before each movie. That is yet more money even for those with free content

    Power is always an issue. To not have to run down my battery is nice on birds with no power or if my next bird has no power. IFE works to entertain.

    Lastly SAT TV. I think the best way to do that is to a in-seat IFE not to a PVT device.

    1. Plus, there’s no guarantee that the power outlet at your seat works. I actually like having the screens for any flight that is over 4 hr in the air.

  5. I am not a fan of airplane movies. If the movie is good, I want to see it on a big screen. My preference is to look out the window at the Grand Canyon and Rockies, or read.
    However, having just flown on United’s B-737-900, I was surprised to see that there is no tv screen or headphones of any kind. You have to bring your own viewing and listening equipment. I will be looking for a good price on life jackets — probably the next bit of optional equipment we will have to carry.

  6. I’m still baffled why they don’t use seatback systems to improve service AND profit. Show me the meals and drinks (both included and upgrades). Let me tell the flight attendants what I want without having to ding them, have the come ask, go back, get it and come back again. Let me browse and buy duty free, airline memorabilia and ground services. They have the length of the flight to interact, delight and upsell me, yet don’t seem to take the opportunity.

      1. Does anyone else though? It seems like such an obvious advantage to the airline, and uses what they already have installed.

    1. Seat-back IFE systems are heavy and weight increases fuel burn. If the airline thinks added revenue will offset fuel costs, the IFE stays. Otherwise there’s no point in hauling around IFE and hauling around the personal devices passengers are using inflight anyway.

    2. Upgrades to avionics are very costly. We are very slowly getting an improved airline constant dollar net profitability picture. Your ideas will probably be incorporated somehow if the economic situation continues to improve. Remember the airport retail hospitality industry is starting to do the tablet order swipe and go thing. The airlines are aware of this.

  7. The studios continue their paranoid policy of alienating zillions of legitimate customers to thwart a couple of pirates. Imagine the goodwill that will accrue to the first studio to get a clue.

  8. I don’t care so much about movies; I might watch one on a ULH sector, but otherwise likely not.

    Is anybody putting the live TV feed onto personal devices? If I’m flying during a key sports event, that’s really what I want the IFE to provide me.

  9. Air New Zealand set the standard for the industry. ANY flight you can get access to all entertainment, order drinks etc. I might use my own device for a short flight but for a long flight in which there aren’t enough power sockets that work, good luck. Also i hear security issues with having to use an airline’s app to see what’s available.

  10. I like having AVOD. It’s much easier to see content at that height as opposed to staring down at your tablet on your tray table.

  11. They can’t get rid of entertainment until they can ensure power and to be honest who wants to have their tray table down the whole time to sit their tablet on it and worry about a drink falling on it. I also use in-flight entertainment as a way for me to find new music or just look at things that I don’t normally have time for. I would miss out on that learning experience if they got rid of the systems.

    1. I agree on the awkwardness of having to juggle food, drink and a personal device. When I’m working on my laptop, I have to stow it away during a meal service. Even just for beverage service, it’s a bit of a hazard to have my laptop out with drinks being passed around.

      Also, having both a personal device and the seatback screen allows one to multitask – I can work on my laptop, while having a game up on the seatback.

      So I have a preference for continuing to have seatback screens.

  12. The US market is fairly different from the international market. While you could easily remove entertainment from domestic flights. You really trying to say you dont need it on the 15 hour ones?

  13. Can anyone in this day and age explain why DL’s USB jacks on the 73s and 77s won’t charge an IPad Air2? It’s like they’re USB 1 standard. Which means out comes the power adapter and find the outlet in the dark. Lucky for me I had my iPhone flashlight to find the outlet between the seats in Delta (dis)Comfort.

    Long haul flights I’d actually prefer to not have seat back screens. On the long haul LAX TO SYD the other day (night, whatever), my seatmate had her screen on the entire flight while she snoozed away. I was tempted to hit the screen off button a couple times.

    Oh and the DL GoGo app sucks. Virgin Australia’s app is beautiful and wifi works the entire flight.

  14. The market is there however as mentioned no carrier has all the components. Ideally one must have

    1.full power at every seats, enough for laptops and large tablets
    2. Full interactive portal not just entertainment, carriers and guests need the option to buy drinks/food/wifi and everything else at one point and not have to seek things outs.

    Some cabin interior outfitters have some options regarding tablet holders. I’m not certain how stable.fragile they are but it may be something that should be looked at for mass deployment. Fixed screens just seem to be another nice to have, but really the biggest drivers of change are those who have software developers able to code a compelling easy to use interface.. I have seen many carriers have great screens with horrible off the shelf software interfaces that confuse people.

  15. i’m a fan of delta connect despite the fact that it’s a bit clumsy to operate. i just wish they would support more devices. this is the biggest minus to streaming vs seat-back entertainment systems.

    i find my iPhone too small to enjoy a movie on, so i’m looking for an inexpensive tablet to buy just for watching movies on the plane. it’s dicey trying to find one that is on the low end of the price scale that actually works with delta connect.

  16. I sure hope they do not do away with setback systems too soon. Not everyone has a device to carry on the plane or perhaps do not want to bring one. It would just be more to pack. Besides, it can be uncomfortable to hold this device for a few hours to watch a movie. If they do go to all tablet or phone access to movies, then I guess we will have no choice. Hopefully, everyone will have such a device or else it will be a long flight.

  17. Incorporating food and drink requests/purchases into the seat-back device will help as long as the devices can get lighter and more durable. Tablet holders sound good, but the ones I have seen are recipes for damaged tablets. They look good initially, but deep examination of the details of use reveals screen cracking stupidity in engineering and design.

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