Speakers’ Corner: Offering consumer tablets for inflight entertainment – what are the issues?


Whilst having a cup of tea with IMDC’s Robert Smith at Aircraft Interiors in Hamburg we chatted about the impending  iPad Inflight Revolution and Robert had some thoughts that we liked and asked him to share with our readers. Here is what he told IFExpress:

“On April 3, 2010 Apple released the iPad and effectively created a new type of consumer device. The touchscreen tablet sold 3 million units in its first 80 days on sale, passed 100 million units in 2012 and shipped an estimated 19.5 million devices in Q1 2013.

Apple is now not the only major company in this sector. Sales growth of Android based devices has meant that despite Apple’s growing sales figures, at the end of the first quarter 2013 Apple held 39.6 per cent of the global tablet market, down from 58.1 per cent in the same period 2012. Total tablet sales overall are up 142 per cent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2013 (All figures according to preliminary data from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker).

Especially relevant for inflight is the growth of smaller, more portable tablet devices such as the Nexus 7 and iPad Mini which itself accounted for 63% of all iPads sold over Q1 2013. Such a significant, seemingly permanent, and highly relevant trend in consumer technology has not gone unnoticed by the inflight passenger technology sector.

Portable media players for inflight use are not a new idea, but these latest consumer tablets represent a step change in both functionality and desirability over anything that has gone before them. As a result we have had a second wave of interest in portables from airlines and a supplier response to make these devices available for passenger usage as a form of inflight entertainment.

There has been plenty of early enthusiasm from a number of airlines wanting to announce that their passengers will be offered tablet devices onboard. Early projects were subject to delays but recently there have been a number of deployments of iPads and Samsung Galaxy tablets for inflight. Is this the start of a trend for inflight which will eventually become as pervasive as it has been for consumer technology?

Answering that question requires analysis of three key areas: hardware, logistics, and content. We evaluate the issues within each area below. Importantly, the impact of each issue can vary greatly according to an airline’s individual circumstance. The result is, as for all inflight technologies, there is no single ‘best’ solution for all airlines.

Hardware Issues
Device Specifications
– It is without doubt that it is the hardware that has attracted attention to these devices. Tablets are thin, with high image quality and responsive touchscreen interfaces. There are differences in the different devices, and different generations of the same device, yet most are impressive when compared to typical alternatives for inflight. Despite continual increases in battery technology, battery life is an issue for inflight deployment in particular. Facilitating charging cycles may require for duplicate stock to be held. This issue is magnified when an aircraft is used on multiple sectors in which case airlines may have to introduce multiple hubs for device re-charging. The number and length of flight sectors may necessitate rotations of tablet stock for certain aircraft more than once per day.

– Although the hardware itself has been the driver of interest in tablets, the hardware specifications of any particular tablet are far from the most important factor. A small number of products and even smaller number of suppliers make up the majority of consumer tablets. An essential point is that the size of the consumer market will make the inflight sector largely insignificant to manufacturers. As a result they have little or no motivation to cater for airline requirements and devices should be evaluated in terms of the work required to adapt them for an airline’s requirements.

Airline Supplier Support
– Airline suppliers have taken on the challenge of delivering consumer tablets to passengers. From an airline perspective, it is important to identify how a potential supplier will match an airline’s particular environment. Issues to consider include: how much capacity is there in the supplier’s deployment pipeline, ability to perform operational and software updates, content integration with or without a CSP already in place, ability to adjust the GUI to changing requirements, and flexibility in number of content updates.
– Responsiveness is crucial; the supplier must be able to support an airline in maximizing its investment within the short life of the tablet. Speed is essential when these devices are currently being updated with new hardware and software every 6-12 months.

Logistics Issues
Logistics Requirements
– IMDC advocate evaluating the total cost of ownership when evaluating any new inflight technology. An airline considering introducing tablets will almost certainly incur significant logistical costs that need to be included in the business model.
– Logistical costs will include: loading the devices onboard, distributing to passengers, reclaiming units from passengers, cleaning, maintaining, and returning units back to base for recharging the batteries and updating content.
– The impact of these logistical requirements will vary greatly according to airline circumstance but can make the largest contribution to total cost of ownership and justify special attention in the planning and evaluation process.

Costs from Increased Weight
– The weight of all required equipment should be taken into account when evaluating portables. Equipment can include the tablet and all required peripherals such as any cover that protects it, headphones, and charging leads if required. Additionally there might be storage equipment required.
– Fuel costs are not the only potential penalty from additional weight; a cargo offset cost may be relevant to an airline. If additional storage is required on the aircraft, there is likely to be existing equipment that has to be removed, which itself presumably has some value that would need to be factored in.

Limitations due to Short Flight Lengths
– Shorter flight lengths severely limits the potential value of tablets to passengers. Traditional high value movie content is naturally not possible unless the passenger has time to select and view it. There are large segments of ‘flight time’ where tablets might well not be available to passengers. Regulations will likely prevent tablets from being allowed to be switched on before take-off, then there might still be time required for distributing tablets, collecting payment, and time for passengers to choose their content for the flight.
– Delivering compelling non-movie content is certainly possible, but typically requires more frequent content loading (daily news), and/or identification and delivery of tailored content (connecting gates, destination information).

Content Issues
Content Security
– The value proposition of tablets for inflight is, as with many inflight technologies, largely based on delivering movie content to passengers. Software, DRM, and hardware configurations offered by tablet suppliers should protect from any risks of piracy and be approved by Hollywood studios. The challenge in gaining studio approval for consumer tablets inflight will depend in part on the airline supplier, and how they can work with the manufacturer of the tablet they provide.

Passenger Take-up According to Amount of Content
– If an airline is considering deploying tablets as a source of revenue then the content selection and content quantity is crucial to the business case. The total quantity of content available, particularly recent Hollywood content, will largely dictate how compelling a tablet offer is to passengers. However, each extra unit of content creates decreasing additional value to the passenger and a balance must be struck that accounts for the marginal cost of adding content.

Advertising Expectations
– Expectations of revenue from advertising should be kept realistic. There are many limitations to the potential of advertising as a source of revenue for any inflight technology. Inflight offers relatively low volumes compared to ground advertising. As a result it is necessary to place the same ads multiple times to ensure sufficient reach. Such repetition can then impact on passenger experience.
– The choice of advertisers is also limited for inflight, particularly on international sectors where global brands are most relevant. Any timing delays for inflight then limit potential advertising again, to general brand awareness campaigns rather than time sensitive promotions.
– Specifically, tablets are still a fairly new medium, and are therefore less proven and less comparable than other inflight media. The end result is that advertisers are (for now) more cautious compared to older and tested medium like inflight magazines.

Provision of Apps
– The consumer success of tablets owes a lot to the range of applications available on them. When considering inflight deployment it is likely that the tablets will not benefit from an internet connection. As a result app selection for tablets inflight is limited to apps that can operate offline. Secondly, an airline must be certain that all necessary rights for inflight deployment are obtained from app developers if they are to be made available to passengers.

The issues identified above provide somewhat of a reality check for the concept of providing consumer tablets for inflight. The extent of these challenges are not so great that they rule out such deployments as a rational choice for all airlines, nor are they so insignificant that we can declare an end to embedded IFE systems.

The significance of each issue is likely to change over time, as will consumer technology and competing inflight technologies. And, as already stated, the impact of each issue will depend heavily on an airline’s individual circumstances. As a result there is no easy answer (of course!).

Forming the right strategy for inflight product will be more likely with a clear understanding of an airline’s circumstances and ambitions, as well as an up to date and impartial understanding of both available inflight technologies, and passenger preferences and behaviors. Doing so is no easy task, but will help to maximize any investment in inflight technology.”

About the Author:

Robert Smith

IMDC is holding an inflight technologies training event for airlines and suppliers in Miami on June 5th and 6th 2013. For more information please contact robert.smith@imdc.net

IMDC assists airlines and their partners in optimizing their investment in cabin and communications technologies since 1999. IMDC’s consultants are experts in Media, Content, Technology, Connectivity and Airline Operations. The company is widely recognized as the leading organization in this sector for Market Research, Executive Training, Product Evaluation, Independent Strategy development and Project Management.


Editor’s Note: This week’s IFEC BUZZ features a father-daughter team. Bill Kendrick is known through VT Miltope and Amanda Kendrick, who was visiting Hamburg at AIX, is a Delta cabin crew
member based in Boston… and a real IFE expert!

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