The sky’s the limit

From video streaming to surfing the web, on-board wi-fi is revolutionising the way we fly, says Jenny Southan.


We are living in the “era of extraordinary – the supernormal revolution”, says James Wallman, editor of trends site, “It is the flowering of materialism – the basics of life are good. Ten years ago, pub food was kind of rubbish, now any normal pub will have good grub. There is a general levelling up of the world and, as consumers, we are much more skilled and knowledgeable than we used to be. We talk about ‘connoisseur culture’ – 15 to 20 years ago you would buy either red or white wine, but now I imagine you know which grape you prefer.”

In-flight entertainment

Our expectations have also increased in relation to in-flight entertainment (IFE). We are not only seeing dramatic leaps in the way we interact, work and play on the ground, but the rapid translation of these advances to our environments in the sky. Still, historically, the experience we have on board has been a good couple of decades behind, because the challenge has always been in adapting the technology to the confines of an aircraft.

More than 30 years after the birth of cinema, the very first airlines began screening movies on board. In 1921, Aeromarine Airways showed Howdy Chicago as it flew over the Windy City, while four years later, on an Imperial Airways flight between London and Paris, passengers watched The Lost World on a large screen at the front of the cabin.

Speaking to BBC Fast Track in October, Rob Britton, Vice-President of Business Development at IFE company Intelligent Avionics, described what it was like: “They had several physical projectors in the aircraft cabin, and the film itself, the celluloid, travelled through the cabin. So you could run to the back of the plane and watch the end again.”

It wasn’t for another 11 years that the first in-sky “media event” (aka in-flight television) took place on a Western Air Express Fokker F10, and a further three decades or so – in the 1960s – before full length feature films were an option, thanks to the introduction of 16mm film systems and videotape to commercial carriers.

In-seat audio – initially delivered via hollow tube headphones, and later, electronic headsets – was rolled out at around the same time. In the 1970s came 8mm film cassettes, allowing for multiple programming on overhead screens, with the late eighties and early nineties heralding the rollout of at-seat audio-video systems (albeit on 2.7-inch screens).

Personal power

Nowadays, long-haul flyers have come to expect in-seat power and personal screens showing hundreds of movies, music and TV shows, interactive maps and video games. Some airlines have even integrated everything from ordering food and drink via touch-sensitive displays, to wi-wi and mobile phone connectivity. At the same time, travellers are better equipped than ever, with their own armoury of smartphones, tablets, laptops and e-readers.

Fully loaded

Responding to the growing trend for BYOD (bring your own devices), airlines are beginning to experiment with systems whereby passengers can rent a tablet computer preloaded with movies and music, or wirelessly access content provided by the airline and watch it on their own screens (or on an iPad provided by the carrier).

For low-cost carriers or on short-haul flights, this is a new revenue stream. Qantas subsidiary Jetstar began offering 64GB iPad 2s for hire in June 2010 at around 10 to 15 dollars, with about eight preloaded movies, 50 albums, five magazines and 25 TV shows, while Sony PSPs were made available on select easyJet services for $12 in September that year.

One month later, Air Baltic became the first European airline to commit to using iPads (free in Business, $11.50 in Economy), while November 2010 saw Iceland Express offering a preloaded iPad for $14 on services between London and New York via Reykjavik. A few months ago, Singapore-based budget carrier Scoot began renting iPads to Economy passengers for $17.50, and handing them out free in Business.

A slightly different approach – using in-flight wi-fi – saw American Airlines start trialling movie streaming to personal devices last summer. Gogo Vision (, as it is known, debuted on its 15 B767-200s in August 2011, and the rollout across the fleet will be complete by the end of this year.

In March, Delta joined in by offering digital downloads of TV shows and movies for $0.99-$6 on domestic and transoceanic routes – with access provided for 24 hours, so you can watch the end of a film on the ground. US Airways has also started offering Gogo Vision, which has a growing list of 200 movies and shows, on its A319s, A320s and some Embraer 190s.

Available to any airline, Lufthansa Systems ( has designed a “wireless in-flight infotainment” system called Board Connect. The Microsoft-based platform lets passengers stream media through their own devices as well as via a seat-back screen. After logging on, you can play music and films, pay for duty-free items by credit card, read magazines, engage in seat-to-seat chat, receive crew announcements and even have personalised messages delivered to you.

Virgin America is planning to enable passengers to download media content from its onboard entertainment platform to their devices via Wi-Fi for a fee (prices not set yet) using Gogo Vision. It has been offering Wi-Fi since May 2009, but Gogo’s next-generation ATG-4 service will be four times quicker.

Qantas is also partnering with Lufthansa Systems, dubbing its version of the technology “Q Streaming”. A trial on select domestic B767-300 flights sees 200 hours of content streamed directly from a server via wireless access points in the ceiling of the plane to iPads handed out to passengers.

Depending on feedback, it will be rolled out across the fleet.


The advantage of enabling passengers to use their own gadgets as opposed to fitting entire fleets with built-in entertainment systems – which can cost up to $8 million per aircraft – is that it not only saves money but weight. That, in turn, saves even more cash, as making a plane lighter means it will not burn as much fuel. US Airways became one of the first to remove its drop-down IFE systems on domestic routes, in 2008, saving about $10 million a year in fuel and maintenance. (Probably a better idea than asking passengers to empty their bladders before boarding, as ANA did during a one-month trial the following year.)

The practicalities of using personal devices instead of inbuilt screens aren’t necessarily so straightforward – how do you balance an iPad on your tray while eating, for example? And if the seat doesn’t have a power socket, which many don’t in Economy, you will have to ensure it is fully charged before boarding. Some of the reasons, no doubt, why 77% of respondents to a recent poll said they preferred to use the IFE system.

Super vision

Happily, many airlines are continuing to invest in built-in hardware – what’s more, screens are getting lighter and more compact, processors are being integrated into the displays instead of placed under the seats in a box, and screens are becoming thinner. Simon Soni, head of in-flight services at Virgin Atlantic, says: “The provision of IFE can be a huge product differentiator and entertainment is an integral part of our heritage – as Richard Branson once said: ‘I am not in the aviation business, but the business of entertainment at 30,000 feet.’”

Bahrain’s Gulf Air is retrofitting its A330-200 fleet with a Sky Hub system that incorporates the world’s first 24-hour in-flight sports channels and shows live coverage of events. Delta allows you to shop on Amazon using its in-flight wi-fi, and passengers on Japan Airlines’ new B787s can peruse digital manga on a monitor or view photos on their IFE screen by connecting their camera via a USB socket. TI Software, in partnership with digital interactive games specialist Electronic Arts, will also be bringing out 3D games such as The Sims 3 and Monopoly.

In the future, premium passengers may no longer have to use a remote control or even touch a screen – IFE provider Thales has developed a “gesture motion sensing system” allowing them to play, pause and navigate content by swiping their fingers in the air (it has yet to sign up an airline for the technology).

For those who find this a tad too sci-fi, Thales has partnered with Qatar Airways to develop a Touch Passenger Media Unit. Connected to its new Top Series Avant “wireless streaming media system”, it comes in two sizes (17.3 inches in Business and 10.1 in Economy) and is a touchscreen Android device through which you can connect to the Internet, play games, check the flight map, shop, chat and order food and drink without disrupting what is being shown on the main display. It also acts as a remote control and can store Android apps.

The unified IFE and Connectivity (IFEC) system will be launched on Qatar’s B787s, the first of which was set to launch last month, and on its A350 XWBs later next year, when they enter service. First and Business Class travellers on Emirates already have a touchscreen remote, as do those on Virgin Atlantic’s new A330 in its Upper Class and Premium Economy cabins.

Andrew Gant, manager of passenger entertainment and communications for Emirates, says: “We are bringing in iPad-style swipe touchscreens throughout our B777 cabins and, from the start of next year, our A380s. All new aircraft – we have about five or six now – have it in all classes. In the premium cabins you get additional tablet-style handsets called mode controllers for your seat and IFE, which also give you a second screen experience.”

Panasonic Avionics’ new eX3 system creates a “home theatre experience”, with high-definition screens, 3D, video-conferencing, broadband Internet for live TV, Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging, integration of personal devices, and its own app store (visit

Neil James, Panasonic’s executive director of corporate sales and product management, says: “For airlines that want to deliver a 6-star hotel experience in the sky, our industry must create environments that are uncompromising in passenger living space and comfort, design, usability, picture quality, weight, power and size. Today’s IFEC solutions must also leverage broadband connectivity to deliver highly targeted advertising, concierge services, Internet and social networking, phone service and real-time credit card validation.”

What else can we expect in the future? Wallman of predicts companies such as Vuzix – which creates virtual reality eyewear to give you the impression of watching a 67-inch screen in crystal-clear 2D and 3D – could transform our viewing experience.

“There is a suggestion that there will be auto-stereoscopic screens – 3D without the glasses – that can see where your eyes are and beam images to you to create a 3D effect,” he says. “There are also computers that can recognise if you are happy, nervous, sad or frustrated. So you could have a situation where sensors in the screen can tell if you need a drink. Intuitive service.”

Sceptical that this will happen in your lifetime? Think again. James says: “3D is here already – we have an unannounced customer for our solution. And moving forward, we expect to see ultra-HD, flexible displays that wrap around the interior, gesture-controlled GUIs (graphical user interfaces) and eye-tracking technology.”

Net result

The first in-flight “Internet solution”, called Connexion by Boeing, was initially signed to partner airlines United, Delta, American and Lufthansa in 2001, but the US carriers pulled out following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Even though Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Korean Air, Japan Airlines and SAS subsequently adopted the service in 2004, within two years it was deemed a flop.

Today, Gogo provides in-flight wi-fi to 1,500 aircraft, with the other key players being Aeromobile (, which launched on Emirates in 2008 and is installed on about 140 planes, and On Air (, which has ties with British Airways and Qatar Airways, among others. Row 44 ( is found on two carriers, Southwest Airlines and Norwegian.

Although popular among US carriers, the cheaper air-to-ground (versus satellite) connectivity provided by Gogo has its problems – while it works fine for domestic flights, as soon as the plane takes a transatlantic route, it loses the signal. Even satellite services are not perfect as they are not yet able to cope with streaming, but Pal Bjordal , Chief Executive of Aeromobile, says it will solve this with 3G, which is six or seven times quicker. It is looking to equip the first aircraft with it next year.

While less than 40% of BT UK’s readers have come across wi-fi in-flight over the past year, the consensus seems to be that access will become as ubiquitous in the sky as on the ground. And while it is chiefly a paid-for service at the moment, it won’t be long until “the era of extraordinary” also encompasses free connectivity.

Rachel Kenworthy, travel, hospitality and leisure editor of trends agency, Stylus, says: “In the next five to ten years it will be demanded as free. Wi-fi is the game changer, as it changes IFE from a static to a connected platform. As we travel, we want to be connected all the time, so it is going to be a more fluid experience.”

Virgin Atlantic’s Soni agrees: “Ultimately, we are striving to achieve a fully integrated information flow and entertainment experience for the passenger, providing a continuous connected journey from check-in to the departure lounge, to the aircraft and to arrivals. Internet and mobile connectivity is key to achieving this.”

Although it is unlikely that every airline will invest in wi-fi, Bjordal says “the majority will, and those looking to attract the business customer will be connected by the end of this decade”.

He adds: “I think it will be on both short-haul and long-haul (routes), except flights under an hour.”

What about using mobile phones on board? Some airlines now allow passengers to make voice calls in addition to sending text messages, but as reader feedback indicates, sitting next to someone who is chatting away to their boss or partner is not a welcome proposition. A poll run by BT UK in 2009 showed that more than 90% of respondents considered it “a menace”. Three years on, only 12% have made a call in-flight.

Still, the lack of uptake is more likely to be because relatively few airlines allow mobile voice calls and those flying over US territory are legislated against it. Whatever the reason, Emirates’ Gant says the negativity has been exaggerated: “In 1996, we had satellite phones installed on every plane. Many thousands of calls were being made a month, and still are today. As soon as mobile phones arrived, people thought there would be carnage in the cabins and that has not happened. We have been flying for four years now with mobile phone coverage available. People like to keep them on, but aren’t necessarily using them.”

While installing such technology remains expensive, Bjordal says prices are coming down. “Soon, passengers not flying on aircraft with this technology enabled will miss it,” he says. Wallman isn’t so sure: “We have seen a shift away from being connected the whole time to people wanting space. A lot of people like to get their thinking done in the air.” Those that don’t can be assured that onboard entertainment will be more exciting than ever in the years to come.

Previous articleLonrho column
Next articleIndustry Comment