For now passengers on short- and medium-haul flights in Europe largely have to make their own in-flight entertainment when they travel. But this is starting to change as a growing number of airlines make investments in IFE and connectivity solutions for their narrowbody fleets.

A recent announcement from EasyJet that it will launch a wireless in-flight entertainment service in conjunction with Immfly later this year provides the latest indication that passengers on European flights will increasingly be able to use their own electronic devices in the air to surf the internet, or to access pre-loaded content through onboard wireless networks.

EasyJet joins Oslo-based Norwegian Air Shuttle and Germany’s Eurowings as early movers on the IFE front in the low-cost carrier market.

Norwegian has been offering satellite-based in-flight Wi-Fi to its passengers for some time, through an agreement with Global Eagle Entertainment that was signed in 2011. The carrier signed a new five-year contract with Global Eagle earlier this year to provide in-flight connectivity, live television and portal-based content across its entire 120-strong 737NG fleet.

Meanwhile, Eurowings announced last year that it would equip 69 of its Airbus A320 family aircraft with Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX Aviation) satellite-based in-flight broadband solution, to enable passengers to browse the internet, stream videos and check social media on their own devices.

Europe’s network carriers have also been making strides in the same direction.

Lufthansa Group, Eurowings’ parent company, entered a strategic partnership with Inmarsat in 2015 to equip 300 A320s with GX aviation. This covers aircraft operated by Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines, as well as Eurowings. And International Airlines Group (IAG) announced earlier this year that it would be the launch customer for Inmarsat’s European Aviation Network (EAN) hybrid air-to-ground and satellite-based in-flight broadband service. More than 300 British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia and Vueling single-aisle aircraft will be equipped over the next couple of years.

EasyJet’s approach differs from that of its rivals because passengers will not be connected to the internet through an external air-to-ground or satellite-based network. They will instead be able to access a range of digital content stored in on-board servers and consume it through a portal that can be downloaded free-of-charge to their tablets or smartphones.

“The Air Time portal will be accessible through the user’s own device browser, which will connect to the on-board wireless network while in flight mode,” EastJet ancillary revenue director Andrew Middleton tells Aviation Week. However, he adds that “the model is future-proofed, should we wish to extend to air-to-ground systems in the future”.

For the moment, EasyJet believes that Air Time is “ideally suited to the short- to medium-length travel market” because it enables the airline to “maintain ownership of the customer experience in a way that an air-to-ground product misses out on”, says Middleton.

Internet services provider Rakuten will be the “official entertainment sponsor” of Air Time, and will help the airline curate content ranging from TV and movies to children’s entertainment and audio books. EasyJet sees a chance to boost its ancillary revenues through the service, as Middleton explains: “[We] have the opportunity to offer new products, for example language learning, add another dimension of accessibility to our in-flight retail range, as well as offer a platform for sponsorship opportunities for other consumer brands wishing to engage with millions of EasyJet customers.”

The carrier, along with rival budget operator Ryanair, has been looking for an IFE solution that makes economic sense for a while. For EasyJet, Immfly provides the answer it was seeking.

“EasyJet has been monitoring this opportunity for implementing digital content on board for some time, and we feel that the technology and economics can now provide a solution that allows us to deliver a service that matches our customers’ expectations,” says Middleton.

For Ryanair, the search is still on. In 2014 the airline said it was “actively working on a Wi-Fi service” but was waiting for costs to come down. A spokesman for the airline today says: “We’ve no update at present. We don’t offer any in-flight entertainment or Wi-Fi. However, customers are free to use their portable electronic devices for the duration of their journey.”

EasyJet chose Immfly because it believes the Barcelona-based company has “a similar ethos” and offers “an engaging, closed-network platform”, says Middleton.

Immfly already has partnerships in place with Spanish low-cost carriers Iberia Express and Volotea, as well as French long-haul operator XL Airways. The company says it expects to reach 100 million passengers by 2018.

EasyJet’s new IFE service will be available on five aircraft from this winter. Further rollout will be “based on the learnings from this trial”, says Middleton.

As more short- and medium-haul airlines board the IFE train, the days of being disconnected during short hops around Europe appear to be numbered.

“As we already see, there will likely continue to be a divergence in what different airlines offer their customers in terms of their in-flight experience,” says Middleton. “How that will play out in this area will be an interesting trend to follow.”