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Singapore Airlines Ltd
Qantas Airways Ltd
Delta Air Lines Inc
Rockwell Collins Inc
JetBlue Airways Corp
Coach travelers on Singapore-based carrier Scoot, the budget unit of Singapore Airlines (SINGY) that launched service on June 4, can while away the hours with a $17 rented iPad (AAPL) chock-full of movies, music, games, and TV shows. Last fall, Jetstar, the budget offshoot of Qantas Airways (QUBSF), also started offering iPads for $10-$15 on flights over two hours. While the tablets are undeniably popular, their inclusion in inflight entertainment (IFE) offerings has more to do with their weight.
Ditching the equipment and wiring that feeds seatback displays throughout a plane, not to mention the screens themselves, can shed thousands of pounds across airline fleets—weight that translates directly to consumption of jet fuel, whose cost is up 36 percent in two years. Scoot says that removing inflight entertainment systems reduced the weight of its four Boeing (BA) 777s by 7 percent—even after adding 40 percent more seats.
The savings are so dramatic because older IFE systems can top 13 pounds per seat or more, says Neil James, a sales executive at Panasonic Avionics (PC), the largest IFE equipment maker. Those pounds quickly add up: The entertainment systems on a 526-seat Lufthansa A380, for example, could easily add a ton per flight.
Two other Australian airlines, Qantas and Virgin Australia Airlines, rent tablets on domestic flights. In October, Delta Air Lines (DAL) began testing video downloads on 16 planes flying longer U.S. routes. Passengers can download movies and TV shows to their laptops for 99¢ to $6. Delta will allow downloads to other devices later this year.
Still, equipment makers such as Panasonic, Thales, Lumexis, Rockwell Collins (COL), and JetBlue Airways’ (JBLU) Live TV subsidiary aren’t worried just yet. The seatback systems are entrenched on the current global fleet, and airlines are racing to expand entertainment offerings with frills that might not fly on a portable device. Dubai-based Emirates, for example, recently introduced larger in-seat screens with swipe-and-scroll technology that replicates the interface on smartphones and other gadgets. (In first class, Emirates now boasts a 27-inch high-definition screen.) The airline’s more than 300 on-demand movies and other content require 2 terabytes of data storage per plane. “We couldn’t fit our product onto a handheld,” says Patrick Brannelly, an Emirates vice president who oversees inflight services.
Besides, for most of the world’s major airlines, there’s an even more mundane concern than weight: With limited space, how do you balance an iPad and your dinner? “Having a tray in your lap when you’re trying to watch a movie and eat was not conducive to a good experience,” says Brannelly, describing airlines’ experiences with earlier handset video devices.
Traditional manufacturers of IFE gear have also made their systems lighter and more compact. Gone are the days of a small box placed beneath each seat to feed the seatback screen—the newest systems incorporate their processors into the screen unit, which has gotten dramatically thinner with newer display technologies. Some equipment makers, including Lumexis, are turning to fiber-optic cables to deliver the entertainment. Newer systems can weigh little more than two pounds per seat, says Harry Gray, vice president of sales and marketing at entertainment systems maker IMS.
As modern seatback systems become increasingly connected to the Web, airlines will explore ways to generate new revenues from advertising and e-commerce. “We see the IFE system transitioning from entertainment to really be a business platform,” says Panasonic’s James, citing statistics that the average flight time is six hours across all routes. With a “captive” audience for such duration, marketers see “a massive opportunity,” he says.
Industry experts say the most likely inflight evolution will be a gradual expansion of viewing options, based on airline and routes: downloads for those who want to use their own gadget, a large, personal HD screen in premium classes, and tablet rentals for fliers who prefer watching a screen larger than the one in the seat headrest. “Ultimately there’s going to be a combination of different forms of content,” predicts Russ Lemieux, executive director of the Airline Passenger Experience Association.
While satellite television and tablets may prove the future at some budget and regional airlines, executives at most international carriers believe traditional IFE systems still enhance the onboard experience enough to offset their potentially higher costs. Says Brannelly: “Nobody’s going to get off the plane and say, ‘That was a rubbish experience, but it saved some weight.’”
The bottom line: To save fuel, some airlines are using lightweight tablet computers to replace inflight entertainment systems that can weigh a ton.