Since the 1990s, air travellers have been staring into seatback screens on almost every international flight. But now, those screens we’ve come to know and love could be set to disappear. In flight entertainment will never be the same again.
Saying Goodbye to Seatback Screens
Those screens won’t be missed by every passenger. Clunky user interfaces, strange handsets and tatty edges haven’t won everyone over. But we’re willing to bet that the new way of doing in flight entertainment will be a breath of fresh air, largely because of the potential it holds.
Mobile devices are in every flyer’s pocket. Devices tend to be upgraded regularly, making on board entertainment systems obsolete before they even make their maiden flight. By allowing passengers to stream the airline’s content over an in flight wifi network, the screens on board are always as up to date as the content. And that content can feature a new level of interactivity – think VR, AR and other emerging mobile technologies.
Streaming over network on board is not only convenient and futuristic – it’s environmentally and economically brilliant. Screen development and installation can cost £2.3 million per plane. All the weight from cables and housings costs fuel – and over £70,000 in fuel a year could be saved for each aircraft. Less fuel and cheaper tickets are awesome benefits for passengers and the environment.
But we can predict a few things that passengers will find less awesome: for a start, holding a device for long periods is a pain in the neck (and the arms). Cables all over the place are no fun to negotiate in a small seat. Using a laptop in most economy class seats is borderline impossible – unless you have the arms of a Tyrannosaurus.
If you choose not to plug in to the integrated USB port (or if your device doesn’t have a seperate headphone jack), your battery will be depleted within hours. And if you don’t actually own a smartphone, tablet or laptop (there’s still a lot of flyers that don’t), then that means no entertainment for you.
There’s also a risk that airlines will remove the screens and charge passengers for access to their content. That would make what was once free and accessible to all passengers an additional luxury, eating into any savings passed on by adopting the streaming system.
These downsides can all be addressed with a few changes. The future’s coming up fast – and with any luck, it’ll be a smooth pass into mobile-powered in flight entertainment.
A Brief History of In Flight Entertainment
Once upon a time, we had airships for transatlantic travel – the first jet wouldn’t complete a crossing of the Atlantic until the 1940s. In the 1930s, transatlantic flying was the reserve of the wealthiest socialites. The most famous airship was the Hindenburg, a flying hotel that made trips from America to Europe in two and a half days.
To make that two and a half day transatlantic sky voyage more palatable, the Hindenburg was fitted out with bars, dining rooms, smoking rooms – even a piano. The ill-fated airship would come to be remembered for reasons other than its fabulous onboard facilities. The grandeur of in flight entertainment was over with the end of the airship era.
In flight movies were nothing new in the Hindenburg’s time – they’d been screened on planes since the 1920s – but they weren’t widely adopted for decades. By the 1960s, in flight movies were common.
As technology developed, so did in flight entertainment. By the 1980s, movies were shown on almost every long flight, with 1970s technology trickling down to economy class. Digital personal headsets were a major improvement on the hollow tube, pneumatic headphones that they replaced.
The 1990s saw LCD screens proliferate, and any international flight worth being on featured a personal screen mounted in the back of every seat. Movies were still controlled centrally at first, but before long, channels could be selected, offering the first glimpse of user controlled entertainment.
The art of in flight entertainment has only just reached its apex: on demand video, music and 3D flight tracking available to every passenger. The libraries are impressive, with new releases and classics all on offer through an intuitive touch screen.
But that could all be over in the name of cost-saving. That might not be the worst thing ever – but we’ll miss the convenient, always-on companion we’ve come to love on long flights.