July 23, 2009

Mobile Devices Could Replace In-Flight Entertainment

Airlines keen to cater for all aspects of consumer satisfaction could find the in flight entertainment provided becoming obsolete thanks to the simple plug socket.

When most long distance travelers think of their time onboard a plane, they usually think of bad food and a short list of movie and music selections.

But now, analysts believe that the recent wave of USB sockets and charging stations mean fliers are more likely to bring their own entertainment on board rather than be at the mercy of airline schedulers.

Carriers such as Delta Air Lines Inc have even begun offering an Internet connection on board, which allows passengers to catch up on e-mails or update their status on Facebook rather than flip through channels on the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system.

When passengers are given options beyond the offerings of their IFE systems and are able to pick and choose what to watch or do on a flight, analysts call it content customization.

Having already suffered from weak demand for air travel and unreliable jet fuel prices, airlines will likely welcome an alternative to the millions they have been spending up to this point.

"There're so many reasons for airlines to change the way it works right now," said Peter Harbinson, an analyst at the Center of Asia-Pacific Aviation in Sydney.

"The biggest advantage for airlines is the weight of the IFE equipment. Fuel burned, regular engineering checks, and licensing fees to movie studios all add up to a considerable amount of money for airlines."

As more airline passengers carry low-cost netbook PCs and other mobile entertainment gadgets including Apple Inc.'s iPod and other MP3 players when they travel, the phasing out the IFE system may happen even faster.

Industry watchers are saying that the most attractive aspect for airlines is the possibility of saving money in tough economic times while passing the change off as a product enhancement.

The cabin crew would also be freed up because passengers would be entertained by their laptops and mobile entertainment devices powered through a socket on every seat.

"I've heard stories about the number of crew on board each flight being cut by airlines after they introduced personal TVs on every seat," said Anthony Prakasam, an aviation consultant.

Airlines centered around low-cost flights such as Ryanair Holdings PLC and AirAsia Bhd. are always seeking a new revenue source, so they could also start installing USB ports and power sockets for their use.

The idea might not be as popular with companies such as Rockwell Collins Inc. and Panasonic Corp, which are the current developers and builders of in-flight entertainment systems.

Analysts say that thought these companies have been the first to encourage airlines to install power sockets and USB ports onto every seat in the aircraft, they could have sought ways of diversifying their work in order to stay ahead.

They could have possibly ventured into providing advertisers with access to a space that has long been seen as a commercially vacuous world, by broadcasting ads on large screens to a captive audience. But such a plan could backfire.

Khoa C. Huynh, age 24, is a self-professed airline geek that claimed he would be far less likely to use the IFE system if it meant being forced to watch advertisements on board.

"I travel everywhere with my laptop, and being able to use it without having to worry about the battery dying on me is a great plus. I won't say I'll stop watching in-flight movies, but I suppose that could mean less time spent on it."