blue-sky thinking for in-flight entertainment

Back in November, I took a 17-hour flight from San Francisco to Singapore, and with the convenience of a non-stop flight, I had a lot of time to ponder what was right in front of me, Singapore Airlines’ in-flight entertainment system.


The system includes two screens, a larger one at eye-level, and a smaller removable corded controller with a screen (PlayStation Vita style) docked below it. At first, this seemed redundant. One screen is plenty for watching a movie, especially when most of us have mobile phones on which to check the time. I only discovered the utility of the second screen (which I never used as a controller, by the way) by accident – having it on the flight path while watching Game of Thrones made it quite convenient for me to check where we were or how many hours were left on this lengthy flight.

You can have the smaller display turned off.

Or, the smaller display can show playback information.

The most useful was seeing flight information, such as this map.

Flight information on the smaller screen.

Convenience – this is a key word for travel. The best use of this smaller screen was to provide useful information about my trip, and yet there was only one good function for it. In-flight entertainment systems, while loaded with media content, seldom meet the auxiliary needs of passengers when it comes to their trip as a whole. Here are some things I think airlines could include to enhance the entertainment system, and provide the utility that passengers crave to allay the stress of air travel.

1. Travellers want convenience

Perhaps the most obvious use of the in-flight system is to offer more convenience to passengers. We are so used to checking our phones for when the next train will arrive, so why not provide up-to-date information on connecting flights and delays via the seatback screens? If the arrival gate and terminal is known, giving information and directions of the airport would also be useful. Convenience in the air is not limited to making travel plans – an alert for available bathrooms, or an in-flight shopping experience, or simply being able to choose your meal, could be done very well on these screens.


2. Travellers want personalisation

While many airlines offer frequent flyer programs, none of these are linked up to the passengers’ in-flight experience. Having an entertainment system that you can browse and set up for your chosen seat ahead of time would provide a level of personalisation that makes you feel special out of the many travellers boarding planes. Singapore Airlines provided a favourites list that I could populate with television shows and movies I wanted to watch while on-board, but I didn’t use it. It would have been easier to choose what I wanted, to be able to customise my UI before we took off, and to have it all synced to my in-flight entertainment system by logging in to my frequent flyer account and saved for future flights. This would also allow the system to provide me with recommendations, store my progress in games (I remember always starting from the very beginning in Zelda or Pokemon on long-haul flights in my youth and trying to get as far as I could in a single plane ride on the entertainment system), and for the airline to track metrics on what each passenger does on board, to help better inform and improve the system’s design.

3. Travellers want connection

Being 40,000 feet in the air can be isolating, and the trickiest problem to address is that we want to be connected. Using the in-flight entertainment system for high scores in games and messaging across seats has not been very effective, because we want to be connected to the world, and the ones we care about back home or where we’re going, not necessarily our fellow passengers. KLM’s Meet and Seat, which connects passengers over social media and allows them to request seats together to chat on board, seems overkill, almost a frightening and immediate version of online dating or networking. The only solution I can come up with is Internet access to selected news sites and email, which is problematic because WiFi is a premium for most airlines, and providing limited access for free can feel more restrictive than anything. Perhaps we need to accept that flying is isolating, until someone comes up with an alternate way of addressing this.

No more screens? A problematic solution

Recently, airlines have reportedly starting phasing out screens on board planes, including American Airlines, whose new fleet of 100 Boeing 737s includes no screens but in-flight WiFi (free for the airline’s library, paid for the Internet) for streaming on to personal devices1. That most passengers have their own devices anyway, and the high cost of screens in both their maintenance, physical wiring and monetary expense (up to 10% the cost of outfitting a plane, reports the New York Times) give plenty of arguments for dispensing with the seatback entertainment systems altogether, with the added bonus of charging for the entertainment system the same way baggage costs have now become add-ons2.


However, from an entertainment perspective, removing the screen fails to take into account the fourth, possibly most important thing passengers look for in air travel:

4. Travellers want to feel they are well taken care of

An entertainment system staring you straight in the face provides passengers with ease and comfort, no need to make sure your phone has enough charge, or to share one iPad amongst two squabbling children. Taking away the in-flight entertainment system screens removes the “specialness” of being on a plane, for those who may not have their own device, or who don’t want to watch things on their devices for 17 hours straight. Having something on the seatback in front of us lets us know that it’s available at our fingertips any time we need it.

Air travel, after all, started as a luxury industry, and to achieve the convenience, personalisation and connection for seamless air travel, flights should be an all-inclusive experience. However, flight service is moving from an all-inclusive model to a pay-per-service one, taking out elements that used to be a part of the cost of a ticket (such as baggage, seat selection, and insurance) and making them add-ons.

Commercial aviation is not what it used to be, and as it has adapted to the times, it has lost the full entertainment and service experiences it once promised.

Qantas and Samsung partnered to provide trial in-flight virtual reality back in 2015, then no one ever did it for real.
Qantas and Samsung partnered to provide trial in-flight virtual reality back in 2015, then no one ever did it for real.  Image from: Qantas.

Like the decision on whether to remove screens completely from new aircraft, predicting the future of in-flight entertainment will be a series of trials and errors. Qantas’ short-lived trial of the Samsung Gear VR headsets on board flights in 20153, a first for both industries, is proof of that. With the restrictions of an enclosed space, and air turbulence, it’s no surprise that virtual reality, which has queasiness, isolation and disorientation as a side effect, would not be the best fit for air travel. Qantas has since tried other ventures, announcing in 2017 partnerships with Netflix, Foxtel and Spotify to provide free trials for passengers – on their own devices4. We’ll have to see how this pans out over the year.

Airlines have to decide whether providing entertainment to their passengers is a priority, especially on long-haul flights. While it has become less difficult to find something to do on a plane (a reason for the development of personal seatback screens in the first place), especially if you bring a mobile phone, tablet or laptop on board, the entertainment system is a nice bonus, a nice way to show that the airline is taking care of you and to make the whole travel experience feel special and different from sitting at home using your own device. Local carriers such as Southwest don’t even provide screens, as their flights are often shorter than the length of a movie. But where airlines will be put to the test are the 17-hour flights, and whatever shape or cost in-flight entertainment will take in the future, customers will simply have to adapt.

Photo from the window as I approached Singapore. Despite the screens a few inches from my face, I didn't forget to glance out the window to catch this incredible view.
Photo from the window as I approached Singapore. Despite the screens a few inches from my face, I didn’t forget to glance out the window to catch this incredible view.

References Cited

  1. Bill Ridgers. “American Airlines does away with seat-back entertainment.” The Economist.The Economist, 25 January 2017. Web. 22 February 2017.
  2. Christopher Mele. “Airlines phasing out screens because you are all on your devices.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 February 2017. Web. 22 February 2017.
  3. Qantas. “Qantas & Samsung unveil industry-first virtual reality experience for travellers.” Qantas. Qantas, 29 January 2015. Web. 22 February 2017.
  4. Qantas. “Qantas Wi-Fi to get a workout with Foxtel, Netflix and Spotify on board.” Qantas. Qantas, 15 February 2017. Web. 22 February 2017.