Is the death knell tolling for traditional IFE systems?

After the announcing of Gogo announce a milestone for its IFE offering this week, Chris Kjelgaard examines whether the world of traditional IFE is changing.

It might seem strange to suggest that seatback screen-based in-flight entertainment systems could soon disappear: Just a few weeks ago, Emirates and Swiss International Air Lines announced they were installing personal in-flight entertainment screens 32 inches (81.25 centimetres) in diagonal width in the first class cabins of (respectively) their new A380s and 777-300ERs.

But while first class passengers on long-haul flights might well enjoy for many years to come the luxury of viewing in-flight entertainment (IFE) – or performing work tasks – on massive flat-screen LED monitors, passengers in economy, premium economy and even some business class cabins might have to get used to doing without seatback screens within the next decade.

In-flight wireless connectivity provider Gogo’s announcement yesterday, February 4, that its Gogo Vision wireless IFE product has now been installed on more than 2,000 aircraft provides a strong signal that the days of traditional IFE systems could well be numbered.

Although Gogo can hardly be said to be objective in the matter, its claim that wireless IFE technology is disrupting the traditional seatback-screen model is hard to dispute.

Traditional IFE systems – which require a hefty server, wiring running from the server to every individual seat in the passenger cabin, and seatback monitors (which, in some cases, are tablet computers) – are heavy and are prone to being affected by software and hardware glitches.

(Has anyone reading this article never experienced their seatback screen not working, or never had to have flight attendants reboot the aircraft’s IFE system because the content wasn’t being displayed properly? Or has this writer just been particularly unlucky in having had such problems on about a quarter of the flights he has taken?)

By making use of the fact that almost every passenger on every flight nowadays carries at least one wireless personal electronic device with them on to the aircraft, the wireless IFE systems that Gogo and other in-flight Wi-Fi service providers offer do away with most of the weight associated with traditional IFE systems, at a stroke.

Instead of using wires running throughout the cabin and seatback screens at every seat to provide IFE content to each passenger, wireless systems provide broadband connectivity to each passenger’s personal electronic device, whether it be a smartphone, a tablet, a netbook or even a Victorian-era laptop.

Even if a passenger doesn’t wish to use that broadband connectivity to browse the Internet at large or chat with friends via WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or some other social-media service, that same passenger can use the connectivity to link to the aircraft’s IFE server directly. Then the passenger can view or listen to on his or her own device the IFE content the airline is providing.

Such systems make tremendous sense for airlines. Not only does installing a wireless IFE system in an aircraft fleet do away with a tremendous amount of aircraft weight, reducing the airline’s fuel bill appreciably. It also removes much of the maintenance time and cost associated with a traditional wire-and-seatback-screen system – and does away with all of the hardware and labour cost of installing the wiring and seatback screens in the first place.

Gogo claims it is now operating as an IFE provider on a scale as large as some of the biggest in-flight entertainment companies; and that it is now the leading provider of wireless in-flight entertainment, by a large margin.

The company’s achievement in having its wireless Gogo Vision system installed in more than 2,000 aircraft is notable. But it appears to be just the tip of an onrushing iceberg.

According to Gogo, it has installed the Gogo Vision product in more than 1,000 aircraft in the past year alone, including aircraft operated by most major U.S. airlines.

More than 2,200 commercial aircraft are outfitted with wireless IFE technology and more than 1 million videos are being watched by means of Gogo Vision each month, according to the company.

Naturally enough, Gogo’s aim now is to become the largest in-flight entertainment provider in the world.

It has several strong competitors in the fast-growing wireless IFE business, but there are roughly an additional 20,000 large (100 seats or above) commercial jet aircraft out there now which don’t have wireless IFE. (According to Boeing’s Current Market Outlook 2015-2034, there were 21,600 aircraft of 100 seats or more, including large freighters, in service at the end of 2014.)

Boeing forecasts that the fleet of commercial jets of 100 seats or more (including large freighters) will literally double in size by 2034 and that this will require more than 38,000 new aircraft being delivered.

So it’s possible that as many as 50,000 existing and new commercial jets could have wireless IFE systems installed in the next two decades.

Even if only half that number of aircraft do receive such installations, that is a lot of work for Gogo and its competitors to be getting on with.

Meanwhile, passengers in every cabin except first class should be preparing for a brave new wireless-IFE world – and providers of traditional IFE systems should be adjusting their business models to keep up with changing times.


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