Embedded inflight entertainment (IFE) systems have become synonymous with long-haul air travel, providing a welcome distraction to passengers seated in tight quarters for many hours. But wireless IFE providers have been making inroads into the narrowbody market thanks to the proliferation of personal electronic devices, and they are now eyeing the economy-class cabins of twin-aisle aircraft—as well as those of long-haul budget airlines—as markets for their lower-cost, lighter-weight solutions.

Airframers are also looking toward offering more flexible IFE solutions, including wireless ones, as line-fit options for airlines. However, given the challenges of streaming content to passenger devices and the fact that cabins are becoming more snug, no one is expecting airlines to rip out their embedded IFE systems and replace them with wireless solutions very soon.

TICK A BOX FOR IFE

All Boeing twin-aisle aircraft leave the factory with Panasonic or Thales Avionics-embedded IFE systems, although Boeing is “studying the option to alter that in future,” says Sean Sullivan, senior manager of cabin systems and connectivity, by giving airlines the choice of standalone wireless IFE. Boeing first needs to develop an alternative solution for reading-light and attendant-call functions, which are transmitted from the seat through the embedded IFE system.

Similarly at Airbus, airlines cannot order the A350 without seat-back IFE, but the manufacturer hints that this could change if there is sufficient demand. Whether such demand will materialize remains the big question.

<p>“The current trend we see is to maintain in-seat IF, and to have streaming on the top to allow passengers to work on their mobile devices while watching a movie,” says Ingo Wuggetzer, Airbus vice president of cabin innovation and design. “Should market trends evolve, we will adapt our marketing. But we also need, of course, reliable solutions. If you have a [long-haul] flight without IFE, that’s the worst thing you can dream of. Definitely, [wireless IFE] could be an option in the future but we need a clear, reliable system on that and clear demand for that.”

While Boeing has observed “an increase in wireless take-up” in the market “and interest by airlines,” according to Sullivan, it has not heard customers say they do not want embedded IFE for long-haul aircraft. “We’re early into the marketplace with wireless [IFE],” he says, noting that it is not clear yet “how much of a disruptor that’s going to be.”

A HYBRID APPROACH

Offering embedded IFE in premium classes is a no-brainer, and indeed screens are becoming larger in the front of the cabin. But some airlines may opt to install embedded IFE in premium classes and offer only wireless solutions in economy class. “We will see more airlines say, ‘Do we really need in-seat in the back if we offer streaming to passengers’ own devices?’” Sullivan says. Boeing has options available now “that would allow that to happen,” notes the airframer’s manager of connectivity, R. Stephen Call. To date, the only wireless IFE solution offered by Boeing as a line-fit option is the Panasonic Avionics eXW product.

Inflight connectivity will be available as an “and” not an “or” function, says Sullivan. “Embedded IFE is not going to be replaced because of connectivity,” he asserts. It is now widely understood that inflight connectivity has become a cost of doing business for airlines.

“Boeing is in discussion with all viable connectivity suppliers. We are actively positioning and provisioning our airplanes to accept all known connectivity technologies,” says a Boeing spokesman.

Boeing’s ultimate aim is to offer a suite of embedded and wireless IFE as well as connectivity options that will enable airlines to decide the direction of the market based on passengers’ needs and wants. “We’re seeing a dramatic increase in wireless, but we’re not yet seeing a real decrease in in-seat systems. In the future, that may shift or change,” says Sullivan.

LOW-COST, LONG-HAUL

Wireless IFE providers are banking on that shift, and there are early signs of interest from low-cost carriers entering the long-haul market, according to Ash ElDifrawi, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at inflight connectivity provider Gogo. While “no carriers have explicitly said they want to replace embedded with wireless,” ElDifrawi says, Gogo has received requests from unnamed long-haul budget carriers interested in a wireless solution, he says, noting that he has “no visibility” on when this might become a reality.

At Lufthansa Systems, Senior Vice President Norbert Mueller sees the long-haul market for the company’s BoardConnect wireless IFE solution as an “interesting scenario.” “When we started wireless IFE, what we had in mind was that there are a lot of aircraft without IFE or with overhead IFE,” he says. “That’s a big market, and it’s still there. The question is: How will this pan out? Do we want screens on long-range aircraft or not?”

In first and business class, Mueller sees the embedded IFE trend continuing, because airlines “want to give passengers a feeling of comfort and being at home.” But in the medium term, he asks, “What will happen with economy class? Will there be screens or will it go to wireless?” Mueller thinks “there is a good chance, at least in economy, that [long-haul airlines] will convert to wireless,” and adds that, given “how the wireless IFE market has evolved, it just needs one airline to do it first before the parts of the jigsaw fall into place.”

The Early-Window Issue

However, a serious challenge to wireless IFE providers is Hollywood’s refusal to permit the streaming of early-window movie content to passengers’ own devices. This content can now be streamed to airline-owned tablets handed out to passengers on board, but not to passenger-owned devices. Because of the importance of early-window movie content to major airlines and their passengers, Hollywood’s stance on the matter is underpinning the continued business case for embedded IFE.

Newly released films “captured huge audiences” for ­Qantas in 2013, says the airline’s head of digital and entertainment, Joanna Boundy. “The top three films [were] viewed more than 100,000 times within the first month of [their] screening,” she says. “On average, customers spend about 80 percent of a long-haul flight watching movies, TV programs and listening to music, so it’s absolutely essential we provide content that they’re going to enjoy. We know new-release films and comedy are favorites with our customers, so continually refreshing the content makes sense.”

Another nod to the significance of embedded IFE on long-haul aircraft is the announcement by American Airlines’ director of inflight entertainment and connectivity, Brian Richardson, that along with adding international Wi-Fi to its Boeing 777-200 fleet and new 787s, American will offer embedded IFE on them “nose to tail.”

Lufthansa Systems’ Mueller thinks Hollywood will eventually permit streaming of early-window content to passengers’ personal devices. His company is “working on technologies we believe can convince Hollywood to give us access to early-window content,” he says. “The question is: How can we protect your phone so that it’s safe enough for Hollywood to accept?”

But Hollywood’s opposition is not the only reason why embedded IFE supporters are doubtful that wireless solutions on long-haul flights will take off in a big way. “It remains to be seen whether wireless will work reliably and consistently,” says Jon Norris, vice president of sales at Lumexis, which manufactures a fiber-optics-based embedded IFE system known as FTTS (“fiber to the screen”) and offers the FTTS Second Screen content-streaming system to augment, not replace, its embedded offering.

Norris says Hollywood will not change its position on early-window content because “it would pose too much risk to the DVD market for the major studios.” He sees wireless solutions supplementing embedded IFE in the future rather than taking its place. “The vast majority of adults watching TV have a tablet in their hands. That’s where we see the wireless IFE market going,” he says.

Lumexis is one of a number of alternative IFE providers lobbying to have their products included in airframer catalogs as line-fit options. The company has entered the second stage of discussions with Boeing on gaining line-fit offerability for FTTS, and by the end of the first quarter, Norris says, “airlines should be able to start ordering” Boeing 737-800s and -900s fitted with FTTS for deliveries beginning in mid-2015.

<p>Companies offering standalone wireless systems are confident their products will be adopted by the major airframers. “Airbus and Boeing will eventually have [Gogo Vision] as line-fit,” says ElDifrawi, although Mueller says it will take “a customer with a big order” for a wireless IFE system to push things along.

Meanwhile, in the short- and medium-haul sectors, wireless IFE is gaining ground as a cheaper alternative to embedded systems. Virgin Australia has installed BoardConnect across its narrowbody fleet and describes it as “a cost-effective solution to inflight entertainment, as it removes the need to update hardware every few years.”

Gogo Vision is offered on hundreds of narrowbody aircraft flying with Gogo’s inflight connectivity service in the U.S., and the company is scoring non-U.S. customers as well. Aeromexico, for instance, plans to equip at least 75 aircraft with both Gogo connectivity and Gogo Vision wireless IFE.

But it remains to be seen whether airlines will eventually choose to adopt wireless IFE on their long-haul services. In order to determine this, the airlines “will be forced to make a value proposition trade-off,” ElDifrawi says. 

With Mary Kirby in Philadelphia.