Since onboard LCD monitors with video on demand were first introduced in 1988, the inflight experience has changed dramatically.
Access to content from streaming services is an increasingly high expectation from passengers, so airlines are finding creative ways to provide that experience, including some live content, branding partnerships, and more personalization.
Today’s air passengers are developing a taste for more diverse, more instantaneous programming. Airlines are getting creative about meeting that demand by incorporating some live TV offerings into their media catalogs, as well as expanding the kinds of entertainment—events, esports, gaming, etc.—available to passengers inflight.
But providing the content they are used to streaming at home is still the ultimate goal. That’s why airlines are creating innovative relationships with streaming platforms, also known as over-the-top providers (OTTs). For instance, the short-film streaming platform Discover.film signed partnerships with airlines including Qatar Airways, KLM, Etihad Airways, British Airways, National Express, Cathay Pacific, American Airlines, and Air Canada. Meanwhile, Delta Airlines is offering original Hulu films and series on its seatback screens through its own service called Delta Studio.
Some airlines are even getting involved in film production. In September 2019, Singapore Airlines announced Unexpected Journeys, a series of short, lighthearted travel films on YouTube. Also, Southwest Airlines partnered with Netflix on the latter’s travel series The Kindness Diaries; to mark the occasion, the airline also announced a contest in which the winner and a guest, plus a charity of their choosing, would receive free air travel.
The Latest in IFE Personalization
One of the great strengths of today’s streaming technology is its ability to personalize the consumer experience using complex algorithms to analyze a subscriber’s viewing behavior, in order to recommend content that they would likely enjoy.
“Creating a truly personal travel experience is one of the strongest service points that an airline can offer its customers,” according to Dominic Green, Panasonic Avionics’ Director of Media Services. “Frequent flyers, passengers in elite classes, and anyone on a long-haul flight appreciate receiving value for their time and tend to remain loyal and give a larger share of their wallet to airlines that deliver that kind of experience to them.”
Those outcomes are incredibly powerful for airlines, which is why the industry is eagerly jumping into personalization.
In practical terms, “personalization” of inflight entertainment often means allowing the passenger to create a custom playlist of favorite films, shows, or songs. In 2019, Turkish Airlines and Emirates introduced phone apps that allow passengers to create a playlist before they board the flight, then sync it with their seatback screens.
“Our customers can now browse the unmatched content on offer and create personal entertainment playlists at their leisure, and once comfortably settled in their seats on board, they simply sync and press play,” Emirates President Sir Tim Clark said in a press release at the time of the announcement.
Consumers are taking advantage of that capability. During the summer of 2019, passengers flying aboard Emirates aircraft created more than 40,000 unique playlists within their inflight entertainment system, with superhero movies proving especially popular.
In some cases, a playlist is offered as a premium service. Singapore Airlines, for instance, allows its elite Krisflyer members to save their playlist, then re-load it for use on subsequent flights. In other cases, the carrier offers it for free. In January 2019, American Airlines began streaming Apple Music at no charge to passengers via complimentary inflight Wi-Fi.
Despite the recent business activity, inflight streaming still faces several challenges, according to Jason Thibeault, Executive Director of the Streaming Video Alliance, an industry group that focuses on streaming technology solutions.
For one thing, he says, providing high-bandwidth services inflight is still not a high priority for many airlines or platforms. “The problem is that we have tens of thousands of planes in service around the globe,” he says. “How many of them will update their connectivity technologies to provide for a streaming IFE, when they can just cache the most popular movie and TV content locally and serve that?”
Creating a truly personal travel experience is one of the strongest service points that an airline can offer its customers.Donimic Green
Director of Media Services at Panasonic Avionics
At the other end of the data chain, Thibeault says satellite connectivity is still too spotty and unreliable for high-quality streaming experiences. “In order for viewers to be able to stream the content they want from their subscribed services, we will need to see a high-bandwidth, consistently reliable connectivity technology come to market,” he says, adding that he expects the industry to make big gains in this department in the coming years.
In addition, streaming geo-restricted live content such as sporting events can be tricky from a broadcasting rights perspective. Luckily, through our relationship with Sport 24, Panasonic customers have access to in-demand sports programming that passengers crave while cruising high above the ground.
Whatever challenges there may be, airlines have shown that they can deliver more of a home-entertainment-style experience. Over time, both technical and business models will evolve, which will bring with it improved capabilities, profitability, and customer satisfaction.
Thibeault believes that opportunities “definitely exist” for partnerships between streaming providers and airlines. “Connectivity technology will definitely get better over the next few years and we will probably see less restriction on passenger streaming from service providers.”