Last updated: 01:30 PM ET, Tue February 23 2016

The Rapidly Changing World of In-Flight Entertainment

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | February 23, 2016

The Rapidly Changing World of In-Flight Entertainment

TravelPulse file photo

In-flight entertainment (IFE) is becoming a more important part of airlines’ strategies for differentiating themselves from the competition. In the past, the only question that fliers asked was which airline was showing which just-out-of-the-theater movies on long flights.  

Wi-Fi connections and the expectation of on-demand entertainment have changed this mindset. Some carriers are embracing this change by offering unique content or forging partnerships with certain content providers. 

New expectations

On trans-ocean flights, most passengers still expect new movies and a lot of choices when it comes to TV shows or music. This has not changed, though most carriers now offer on-demand services instead of simply following a set movie schedule. The airlines who have installed Wi-Fi systems technically give fliers more entertainment options (provided they bring their own devices with them onto the plane). The problem is that many major airlines, especially those in the U.S., still charge for internet connections. 

Two airlines have partnered with streaming services to enhance their IFE offerings. JetBlue has a deal with Amazon Instant Video that allows passengers to connect to an enhanced version of the streaming service via the wireless “Fly-Fi” system. This is free as long as they are Amazon Prime members or if they sign up for a free trial. Virgin America has inked a similar deal with Netflix, and both carriers have live TV options as well.

READ MORE: Virgin is Luring Travelers with Connectivity and Content

A new way to compete  

Norwegian Air Shuttle has been testing the live TV idea on flights to Continental Europe. During the first year of this live TV service, Norwegian’s channel offerings will be quite limited. However, that is not the only reason that the low cost carrier has decided to give this idea a try. Even with a limited number of channels, Norwegian is differentiating itself from the competition because it is offering something that they are not. 

Providing unique IFE options (things that the competition does not or cannot provide) is a way that airlines can compete on something other than price. The idea is this: carriers can use their Amazon or Netflix streaming as evidence that they are more flier-friendly or that they offer a better IFE experience than the competition. The hope seems to be that would-be passengers will place a value on these unique options and make their decision on which airline to fly based on the overall experience, not just the price of a ticket. 

READ MORE: JetBlue To Provide Gate-To-Gate Wi-Fi Connection

More options are better

Another thing that JetBlue and Virgin America offer with their respective streaming service partnerships is a larger number of entertainment options. Say what you want about the quality of the movie and TV show libraries on Netflix or Amazon; they do offer many more choices than your standard on-demand seat-back system. This is the main advantage of WiFi-based IFE services: they exponentially increase the number of entertainment choices that fliers have access to. 

The main question, then, is whether airlines will make people pay to access these innumerable entertainment choices, or if they will provide them for free. There are plenty of options for partnership or licensing deals with this kind of internet-based IFE. Certain brands or advertising networks could partner to offer free access to fliers, and upselling is also an obvious income enhancer (perhaps offering “premium” versions of the free service). Virgin America has said that it will evaluate pricing options for its Netflix streaming on March 2, so time is running out for free binge-watching (though we will have to wait and see what the airline decides to do). 

One thing is clear, though: IFE is changing at a rapid pace. That’s probably good news for fliers, though there is a danger that entertainment options could eventually follow the a la carte pricing model that airlines have grown so fond of. 


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