There are many miseries that the modern traveller must endure: chaotic airports, economy-class seats that become a form of medieval torture after an hour and kleptomaniac baggage handlers. But all of that can be mitigated if you slip on a pair of headphones and while away the flying hours watching a good movie.
For many businessmen, an aircraft's inflight entertainment system (IFE) is the only way they can keep up with the latest movies, television and music. According to travel industry research, frequent business passengers spend only 30 minutes during a longhaul flight actually working but over two hours watching the IFE. The rest of the time they are usually sleeping – catching up on that other luxury their busy schedules usually do not allow for.
Anyone who has been on a new Emirates aircraft recently will have discovered possibly the best inflight entertainment system in the world.
This may not sound like a particularly impressive boast but consider what a 15-hour flight to New York would be like without an entertainment system.
In fact, consider any longhaul flight without an IFE and it is clear just how reliant we have become on this technology to relieve the terminal boredom of international travel.
Over the years, the entertainment offered onboard planes has developed as air travel itself has changed. In the earliest days passengers would only be offered a selection of magazines but the introduction of large jets allowed the installation of projectors, which beamed fuzzy movies on to a bulkhead at the front of the cabin.
Then monitors were installed in the aisles and, finally, we got the seatback screen – or, in first class, a 23-inch flat screen television. Lucky devils.
For airlines a high quality IFE is a vital marketing tool as it allows them to stand out from less technologically advanced rivals. As a result, the market for airborne entertainment systems is now worth more than $2 billion (Dh7.3bn) a year but despite the lucrative sales opportunities only two companies are slugging it out for the big orders.
Panasonic is the market leader, while Thales, the French defence and avionics company, is the new contender. Emirates has gone with Panasonic for its ICE system, while Etihad has a Thales system – and this split is mirrored across the aviation sector.
Despite the plethora of electronics and avionics companies in the world only these two competitors exist in the IFE market largely because the barriers to entry are extremely high.
IFEs must be as capable as any high-street gadget but they must also pass all air-safety regulations and have military-grade reliability. They must also be as light as possible and consume as little power as possible.
These extra requirements increase the cost significantly and fitting out a plane with a new IFE system is a major expense for any airline. A good system on a Boeing 777 might cost $4 million to install and a further $4m to maintain over five years. Multiply that across a fleet of several hundred jets and the IFE can quickly become a billion dollar purchase for a large carrier – making it the most expensive item onboard after the engines.
In addition, the airlines have to pay to show movies to their passengers.
Here, Hollywood makes sure it gets its pound of flesh. A typical blockbuster starring an A-list celebrity might cost $75 per aircraft per flight. Multiply that over hundreds of flights a day and the monthly bill can be enormous.
In our increasingly pay-per-view world, this Hollywood-imposed system seems archaic and the airline industry and their IFE providers need to lobby for change because, ultimately, these charges are passed on to passengers.
Given the electronics onboard modern aircraft, it should not be too hard to work out who has watched what and sort out the fees accordingly.
Otherwise, airlines end up with a Good German situation. An airline executive who wanted to highlight the unfairness of Hollywood's charging system recounted this story to me: his airline had put the Good German on its planes because the movie starred the ever-popular George Clooney.
The monthly cost of renting the movie for just one flight a day over 100 planes would have been about $225,000. The airline did some research and discovered that during the entire month just three people finished the movie. Not surprisingly, the airline did not bother renewing the film the following month.
Another challenge facing the IFE industry is the development of the next generation of technology. Emirates' Panasonic system points the way with a movie selection extending to hundreds of titles and what seems like thousands of television shows.
I particularly like the feature that allows people to plug a memory stick into a USB port and save their settings so they can restart a movie at the right place on future flights – a real benefit to the frequent flier.
Thales is also developing some brilliant new ideas at its high-tech facility in Los Angeles. The moving map, already the most viewed part of any IFE, is about to become a fully interactive feature. It will allow passengers to zoom in so they can see what they are flying over. Passengers will also be able to search out tourist sites at their destination and they will even be able to use the onboard satellite internet connection to book hotels and tickets to events. In theory, this will allow passengers to book their holiday while they are on the plane.
However, the internet is still only in its infancy at 40,000 feet largely because of the cost of getting it there.
Boeing's Connexion service was canned after the company and its customers realised they could not make it work at sensible prices. Panasonic is developing its ideas for delivering satellite broadband and live television but the costs are enormous and coverage is patchy. Thales wants to offer a more limited and cheaper satellite internet connection (essentially text only) but it will upload the latest news and TV shows to the plane using Wi-Fi at the departure gate.
Neither solution seems to be a slamdunk winner as yet but these companies and their airline customers will keep pushing to impress us with their entertainment systems, and that can only be good for passengers stuck on longhaul flights with little else to do.
- David Robertson is the Business Correspondent of The Times of London
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