Sky’s the limit: The future of in-flight entertainment

CNN  — 

New release blockbusters are served up easier than in-flight meals, and airlines may be tripping over each other to trial the latest headline-making gadgets, but it’s taken nearly a century for in-flight entertainment to become the hot topic and realm for rapid innovation it is now.

The first in-flight film, a short titled “Howdy Chicago,” was screened in 1921 on an Aeromarine Airways flight to the Windy City.

Such special features were rare indeed, and the following decades saw passengers mostly utilizing time spent in the air to improve their card playing or catch up on correspondence, as airlines often provided stationery sets and decks of cards.

Regularly scheduled in-flight movies began in 1961, shown via projector and often with poor resolution and audio, the latter transmitted from tiny speakers in the armrests up hollow headphone tubes that made it look as though passengers were wearing stethoscopes.

It was hardly elegant, and it wouldn’t be until 1988 that miniscule screens – at 2.7 inches wide – were installed.

So how will passengers be entertained on flights in the coming decade?

Emerging trends like virtual reality and digital companion apps suggest that what lies ahead is less one-movie-for-all and more all-movies-for-one.

Transparency of amenities

Passengers can watch full seasons of shows like The Walking Dead on Virgin America's Red.

US-based airlines take two steps back with the loss of Virgin America in its sale to Alaska Airlines. The San Francisco-based carrier, which commenced operations in 2007, sought to shake up the industry with innovation.

Taking inspiration from fellow Virgin Group company Virgin Atlantic, which in 1991 became the first airline to offer in-seat video for all classes, Virgin America put a heavy focus on developing a fresh system capable of wowing even the most tech-savvy travelers.

The result was “Red,” an Android-based, open-source platform with seat-to-seat chat and multiplayer gaming, the ability to purchase and send a drink or snack to yourself or another seat (and keep an open tab), and the first ever seatback in-flight digital shopping experience.

If seats were available in First Class, passengers in the back could even tap and pay for an upgrade through the Red system.

Although the end of Virgin America also means the discontinuation of Red, it does leave a legacy.

The airline’s enthusiasm for in-flight entertainment and consistent promotion of it as central to the passenger experience paved the way for travelers to demand more transparency of amenities. What, after all, was the difference from one airline, one aircraft type, or one flight route to another?

Enter Routehappy, a content platform that compares flights on comfort factors like seating and amenities. If airlines won’t be forthcoming about what exactly passengers can expect on the specific flights, Routehappy is, well, happy, to fill in the blanks.

Painstakingly researched data on airplane layout and amenities is Routehappy’s bread and butter, and is integrated into the search results of online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, in a move to help customers make more informed travel booking decisions.

“Entertainment in a box”

Emirates introduced the industry's first "digital amenity kit" in 2016.

Jason Rabinowitz, Director of Airline Research at Routehappy, tells CNN Travel that the airline industry is in the midst of a streaming boom, where “airlines all over the world are now choosing to install what is essentially ‘entertainment in a box.’”

A portable server, loaded with thousands of hours of updated content, is simply brought onboard, and passengers can access the content using their own devices, without the need for internet connectivity.

“Streaming entertainment systems are now small battery powered boxes the size of a brick that can provide a signal to the entire aircraft,” says Rabinowitz.

“An airline can install streaming entertainment across its entire fleet literally overnight, a process that used to take months or more.”

It’s also a cost-effective entertainment solution, and leisure-oriented carriers like Thomas Cook Airlines, Air Europa, and Brazil’s Azul have embraced it.

Streaming boxes may not even be long for this world, thanks to the introduction of cloud-based content. In 2016, Emirates Airline introduced the industry’s first “digital amenity kit.”

Offered complimentary to passengers, it’s a typical washbag packed with a few necessities, but with the atypical bonus of a partnership with Blippar, a “visual discovery” mobile app, which allows passengers on long-haul routes to use their phones and the Blippar app to unlock activities, music playlists, and a game titled “Emirates Destination Dash.”


Singapore Airlines' app allows passenger to view film and TV listings for upccoming flights.

More comfort, more choice, and more control are the rallying cries for modern air travelers, and Singapore Airlines, in partnership with Panasonic Avionics, is moving toward a future that addresses all three.

The newest entertainment solution from the Skytrax five-star airline is a combination of Panasonic’s next-generation eX3 system and a companion app, a two-screen system that offers the passenger a level of entertainment customization previously unavailable.

With the Singapore Airlines app, passengers on the airline’s Airbus A350 and Boeing 777-300ER aircraft may view listings of films and TV shows available on their upcoming flights, watch trailers, and read reviews and synopses while building a personal playlist.

Once onboard, the app is paired with the Panasonic system, the passenger’s playlist is accessible, and their personal device functions as a second screen and wireless remote for ultimate entertainment flexibility.

Follow along with the moving map, read reviews of movies, or play games on your tablet while binge-watching a TV series – one you added to your playlist perhaps a month ago – on the seat-back screen.

“With the proliferation of personal mobile devices and the arrival of our new Airbus A350 fleet, this latest innovation will help enhance the in-flight entertainment experience for our customers,” says Tan Pee Teck, Singapore Airlines Senior Vice President Product and Services.

Virtual reality

Airline Joon will provide virtual reality headsets when it launches in December.

Look beyond the hype around Air France’s “millennial” airline Joon, set to commence operations this December, to the fine print of what will be offered to travelers taking a chance on the fresh travel brand.

Joon plans to bring virtual reality goggles onboard as entertainment, albeit at first only for those in a premium class.

While Qantas has trialed VR headsets in first class since 2015, and KLM recently handed VR headsets to tourists flying budget airlines from New York to Europe as part of a marketing stunt, airlines have yet to commit to virtual reality technology.

Joon will be the first airline to offer it as standard, partnering with Allomind to design a lightweight, wireless, “wearable cinema” headset with two 1080-pixel, micro-OLED displays that work in tandem to channel the experience and depth of theater viewing.

Leave the headphone splitter at home. “Co-watching” is one benefit of VR headsets that follows the trend of social sharing in travel. Sitting apart from friends and family, or seeking alone time without coming off a grump to your seatmate? The headsets can be linked, and, as Allomind touts, passengers can “watch out loud what your friends and family are watching, with your friends.”

Connecting the headsets to in-flight internet may even open up the possibility of streaming from personal Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBO and other accounts, even while flying at 35,000 feet and half a world away from home.