Why Personal Devices Matter
Eager airlines retrofitting aircrafts with new seatback displays should consider passenger desire to use their own devices, but not only for the mutual convenience of passengers and airlines. Other factors such as cost, keeping up with new features, and technology trends should be considered.
This article balances the pros and cons of two common trends in inflight entertainment – delivery content to built-in seatback displays or personal electronic devices (PEDs). If the hybrid or better yet combination of seatback and personal device entertainment is not an option, airlines should consider an array of variables ranging from cost, ability to keep up with new technology trends, and passenger convenience before they make a binary decision to commit to one type of entertainment.
Delta and United are among several large airlines to formally announce their commitment to equip their aircraft with new seatback displays, Scott Kirby from United and in less recent news from Ed Bastian from Delta. Other airlines are undoubtedly considering these decisions when trying to compete for passengers. But will passengers choose an airline based on this seemingly convenient feature or would they prefer using their own personal devices? Here are some considerations that might impact airlines’ decisions:
Equipping aircrafts with seatback displays is not an inexpensive proposition. The cost of retrofitting the aircraft with seatback displays but also cost of maintaining hardware and updating software are important considerations. In addition, through added weight, airlines will incur the additional cost of fuel that easily translates into the weight of one adult passenger. If each display and accompanied wiring weighs about 0.5 lb, on a 300 passenger aircraft this translates into 150 lb of additional weight, this in addition to the luggage of passengers that most likely already carry a personal device – most passengers carry two. Another less obvious contributing cost is the cost and maintenance of display units. Airlines are likely to pay several times more for equivalent displays available on personal device market. Every new feature, e.g. hardware decoders, are likely to cost airlines both money and time before these can be delivered for passenger use.
Streaming media has gone through tremendous changes in the last decade due to the growing popularity of streaming media at home, and the ever increasing availability of content available from on demand subscription platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Peacock, …Technology has stayed in lock step with new innovations such as: delivery of content directly to the passenger devices browsers, eliminating the need for native application, and the ability to deliver more content on a similar bandwidth through modern video coding standards such as HEVC, AV1, VP9, …More content and higher quality of content (e.g. 4K, HDR) will require more bandwidth and hence better decoders. The streaming media industry is likely to experience more changes as a result of new video coding standards (e.g. VVC), and adaption of big technology vendors to new standards and trends. These changes occur rapidly and are quickly reflected in personal devices. Custom displays mounted into an aircraft will become static and quickly obsolete unless airlines can synchronously and seamlessly mirror these technology trends.
Airlines are free to innovate and IFE should not lag behind the technology trends of the rest of the streaming media industry. New features that enable customers to rate the content, bring new, highly desirable content to the passenger based on their personalized selection, the ability to interact with other passengers and socialize while watching movies and TV shows are just some emerging trends. Seatback displays are likely to miss on these new features as they are typically built as monolithic, stationary systems managed by a single vendor. The aforementioned updates are usually a product of a rapid innovation cycle that is not always possible.
Onboarding of new features on PEDs is simple no matter if the final delivery model is browser based or even if an airline is using a native application. In browser content delivery has been dominating the Internet for the last 15 years and with the advent of rich application technologies, such as ReactJS, is likely here to stay. But even native applications facilitate deployment of new features more rapidly than built in displays. They do not rely on airline operation teams to update the system while passengers get the new features with a simple update of their app.
While earlier considerations might favor personal devices, the debate might lead to a split decision. There are passengers that enjoy the convenience of the built-in display that is readily available for them without the need to worry about connectivity to the aircraft WiFi, battery life, and just pure placement of their PEDs in a convenient, hands-free position. On the other hand, there are passengers that are comfortable with their own devices, their device customized configuration, and might consider the seatback displays less sanitary. And many passengers have brought their favorite Bluetooth headsets with their devices, and may not be willing or able to connect them to the seatback. Also, especially on a window seat, the sun glare may require turning the display to be at an angle. This can be easily achieved with a personal device. The convenience factor is a consideration that might change from passenger to passenger, demography to demography or region to region. However, the decision does not have to be binary. Airlines are often left with more than one choice. They can equip seatback entertainment for first class cabin or certain routes where they anticipate that their audience would welcome seatback displays. Destination where passengers are more likely to be comfortable with their own devices and the cost is a considerable factor of their traveling decisions should use IFE delivered to PEDs. This hybrid model can not only improve passenger rating and coveted airline loyalty, but can also serve as a platform for rapid onboarding of new features or a fallback scenario in case the setback entertainment fails.
About The Author
Juraj Siska is an IT professional with a fruitful history of building secure IT systems. After a successful IT consulting career, he started IdeaNova Technologies which provides high quality IFE products and services to avionics customers worldwide. Juraj has led IdeaNova for fifteen years of brining innovation and professionalism to its clients. He graduated from Iowa State with a PhD in engineering and is the company’s CEO, overseeing business and technical implementation of the next generation of IFE systems.