As tablet computers become ever more ubiquitous, a growing number of airlines are viewing the devices as an attractive and flexible inflight entertainment option. Tablet-based IFE programmes have been in use for a couple of years now and all signs point to their popularity increasing, particularly as a short-haul offering where IFE tends to be non-existent, as a source of ancillary revenue for low-cost and charter operators, and as a temporary solution allowing airlines to buy more time before making any long-term IFE commitments.
While the likelihood of airlines ripping out the embedded IFE systems on their long-haul fleets in favour of handing out tablets such as the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy appears slim at this stage, the demand for tablet-based IFE as an added benefit – particularly for first and business class passengers – is growing. As consumers become more and more tech-savvy, their demands and expectations are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Consequently, the provision of tablets inflight can be seen as a key differentiator for airlines that are keen to meet those expectations.
The emergence and proliferation of tablet devices has been a “game changer” in the portable IFE world and has led to a spike in interest levels from airlines, according to Kevin Clark, business development manager at Bluebox Avionics. UK-based Bluebox specialises in providing airlines with portable, tablet-based IFE solutions.
“There has been a considerable uptick in interest in the portable IFE proposition with the emergence of tablets,” says Clark. “This year versus last year we’re looking at probably twice as much interest.” Airlines are increasingly coming to the realisation that tablets have made it “very possible to put an IFE proposition together that is very robust and relatively easy to manage”, adds Clark.
Bluebox currently has “upwards of 8,000 units” in use by 11 airlines, and “it’s a number that’s growing”. The company’s biggest customer is Australian low-cost carrier Jetstar, which in late 2011 rolled out 3,000 iPads across its network to enable passengers to watch early window movies and TV shows, play games, listen to music and read electronic books and magazines.
Bluebox’s Clark lists three main areas where tablet-based IFE programmes are proving to be an attractive proposition to airlines: service enhancement; service recovery; and driving ancillary revenues.
The first area relates to older aircraft with ageing IFE systems that no longer offer the standard of entertainment that passengers have come to expect. Rather than replacing these systems with expensive and heavy embedded IFE solutions – which, he attests, may make little economic sense on aircraft aged over 10 years – tablet-based IFE offers “a very viable option to augment” the existing offering, says Clark.
On the service recovery front, tablets can be doled out to passengers in the event of the aircraft’s main IFE system failing. “If you’re on an aircraft and the IFE fails in business class, the airline brings out portable DVD players – the Bluebox IFE system fits very neatly into that,” says Clark.
For airlines looking for additional ways to boost their ancillary revenues, tablets can be rented out to passengers for a set fee. This can be a particularly attractive option on charter and holiday flights, as well as for medium- to long-haul budget operators. The devices can buy an airline “two to three years before they have to make a decision” on investing in a seatback IFE solution, and provide “a very profitable revenue stream in the meantime”, says Clark.
Another key market where tablet-based IFE programmes could find a happy home is the short-haul sector where IFE, for the most part, does not exist. “Short-haul flying is a massive untapped market,” says Duncan Abell, VP creative at IFP, which also provides tablet-based IFE solutions to airlines. “The cost of installing embedded IFE [on short-haul aircraft] is prohibitively high, so airlines tend to just put newspapers on board, or leave passengers for an hour-and-a-half to two hours.”
Adds Abell: “Financially, it makes sense. It’s flexible, airlines can trial it and it provides passengers with a branded distraction. I expect this market to increase massively, and the variables of these products will also increase.”
IFP recently equipped Equatorial Congo Airlines with an iPad-based IFE system for its flights from Brazzaville to Paris Charles de Gaulle, and is on the verge of signing a deal with India’s Regent Airlines, which Abell says is looking for an iPads-for-IFE solution that will enable it “to differentiate its business class cabins”.
IFP very much sees tablets as a complementary offering to be used alongside embedded IFE systems, rather than an “instead of” solution, says Abell. “We actually see tablets as pollution of the environment – they take away from the brand experience of the airline. But we are seeing a massive amount of opportunity in providing applications to tablets, such as connectivity and second screening.”
The idea behind second screening is that passengers will be able to watch movies on the seatback screen while simultaneously screening different content to a hand-held device – essentially allowing them to multi-task their entertainment. However, there are several hurdles to cross before second screening becomes a widespread reality. “Second screening is in its infancy,” says Abell. “The technology is there, it’s more a case of value and return on investment for airlines.”
One airline that recently dipped its toe into the tablet-based IFE market is Finnair, which earlier this year carried out a two-month trial using Windows 8-powered HP ElitePad 900 tablets to provide IFE to passengers on board one of its Airbus A330s. The devices were handed out to Business Class passengers on scheduled flights and ‘Comfort Class’ passengers on charter flights. In addition to content including movies, TV shows, music and games, the tablets offered inflight Wi-Fi, provided by OnAir. Passengers were asked to participate in a survey, which the airline is using to help develop its IFE strategy going forward.
The survey produced some “interesting” findings, says Finnair director customer entertainment Jouni Oksanen. “Three out of five passengers said they would use a Finnair tablet on their next trip. And we found that the moving map was more important to passengers than the TV content,” he notes.
Finnair chose the HP ElitePad as “an acid test to see how flexible it was in this environment” and because “Android and iOS is around already”, says Oksanen. “We did the trial and the next step is go or no go,” he adds. If Finnair does decide to roll out a tablet-based IFE solution it will most likely be deployed on leisure flights from Finland to the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands.
“I don’t see a way that tablets can work on widebodies in the whole cabin. On the [Airbus] A350, which we’ve just ordered, there is no option to buy the aircraft without embedded IFE,” says Oksanen. “But tablets could be used on lesser flights as a rentable item – it’s a low-hanging fruit. They could also be used in Business Class.”
PROS AND CONS
One of the key advantages of using tablets for IFE is that “you can upload new information every time you’re on the ground, so you can keep them really fresh”, says Oksanen. “Also, with embedded IFE you have to go through all the certification and testing.”
On the minus side, the logistics of handing out tablets, collecting the devices back in and keeping them well charged can be complex. Bluebox’s Clark acknowledges that this can “increase the workload on the cabin crew”, but adds that the company has “worked hard to make sure the logistics process is as smooth as possible”.
To address the charging issue, Bluebox has developed a hard case containing an extra battery which can provide an additional 20-hour charge. The added bonus of this is that “the devices stay on the aircraft and just the batteries come off”, says Clark.
Oksanen says he initially had reservations about whether the devices used in the Finnair trial would remain charged for the required amount of time, but was pleasantly surprised by the results. “We had a great concern with the battery life for our flights from Helsinki to New York and Asia,” he says.
“HP promised a 13-hour battery life with the extra battery jacket, but we were concerned whether it could handle a flight to Asia and back.” Oksanen adds that, in fact, the battery “handled this very well” and “none of the devices came back to base with an empty battery”. However, he points out that many of the return flights were overnight flights, therefore the tablets were not being used as heavily as during the day.
In-seat power sockets provide another charging option but they are still not standard in economy cabins. “Devices run comfortably from seat power – this is more common on modern aircraft but, at this stage, it’s mainly found at the front of the aircraft,” says Clark. Some galley carts are capable of storing tablets and charging them on the ground by plugging the cart into a main power supply, and Clark says there is one supplier which “believes it can get to a position where [tablets] can be charged on an aircraft” while being stored in a galley cart.
Another area of concern for airlines looking into tablet-based IFE solutions is the possibility of the devices being stolen. However, there are several ways of minimising the risk of theft. For instance, IFP’s Abell points out that American Airlines – which became the first US carrier to offer premium passengers free use of a Samsung Galaxy tablet as an entertainment option on certain routes – has etched a code on the back of each device.
This code is “worked into a mainframe network guarded by one person, so they know where they all are and they can detect when they all come back in”, says Abell. He adds that airlines that know how to operate those kinds of logistics “can make it work”.
Another theft-avoidance measure is to take passengers’ credit card details before handing out the tablets. “Theft isn’t a big issue – you can hold the devices against a credit card and say, ‘if you steal this we will charge you for the whole tablet’,” says Finnair’s Oksanen.
According to Clark, however, theft has not proved to be an issue: “In our experience, we’re not aware of any thefts of devices from an aircraft.” To illustrate this point, as a security measure Bluebox offers airlines radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to keep tabs on their devices, but “no one has taken it up”.
Something else for airlines to think about, as the use of tablets becomes more commonplace in the cockpit to provide electronic flight bag (EFB) programmes and by cabin crew to carry out their duties, is whether it makes more sense to use the same platform for passengers and crew.
For Finnair, which is considering arming its crewmembers with tablets, “there would be advantages to going for a common platform from a charging perspective”, says Oksanen. “But we’d need to find a platform which supports different types of devices so we could have a bigger display for passengers and a smaller display for crewmembers.” Bluebox’s Clark says that if an airline decided to use separate platforms for crew and passengers, “it would have to be very convinced of the merits of having different platforms”.
Joe Ayson, director of marketing and corporate development at Allegiant Systems – which has developed a paperless solution called FlyDesk for cabin services and EFB – makes the following point: “Pilots are using iPads and flight attendants are replicating this. [Tablet-based] IFE for the back of the plane makes it easier to handle and maintain.”
Allegiant Systems is understood to be considering a move into the tablet-based IFE world, but is not willing to discuss those plans at this stage. “We have partnerships that we could work with if we wanted to [on the IFE front] but not right now,” says Ayson.
One thing he is certain of, however, is that tablet use is only going to continue its rapid ascent: “Tablet technology is now part of life – everybody carries them and we will see a steady jump. Tablet technology has changed the way we do things.”
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