Itineraries: Communal TV Screens in a Binge-Watching Age? Won’t Do, Airlines
“People on planes are hungry for different entertainment options,” said Mr. Dicko, whose small team of developers, split between California and France, has been testing the headsets on flights for nearly a year. Last week, XL Airways — a low-cost, long-haul French carrier — became the first airline to offer a commercial version of SkyLights service to passengers for $16 a flight.
“Putting virtual reality headsets inside an aircraft is an idea as old as virtual reality itself,” said Mr. Dicko, who previously worked as a pilot for Air France-KLM, referring to the decades-old hope of offering passengers 3-D-style entertainment.
Mr. Dicko’s 3-D headset is part of an industrywide push to bring carriers’ in-flight entertainment up to the standards that many passengers now expect when they travel by car or train. The onboard efforts include beaming high-speed internet directly to cabins, as well as new partnerships with Netflix and other content streaming services.
It is all in recognition of how media-dependent today’s travelers have become. Many, even most, are accustomed to almost universal internet access through home broadband and mobile internet packages. They are also likely to have subscriptions to video services like Hulu or music services like Spotify. And because many travelers now carry smartphones and tablets on planes, they would like to have the option of viewing and listening to such content, even at 30,000 feet.
Analysts say that digital access and entertainment could help airlines, particularly American carriers that are completing a decade-long restructuring, differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive domestic and international market. Consumers can easily shift allegiances if a rival airline offers new amenities like high-speed onboard Wi-Fi.
“For the legacy carriers, imitating passengers’ experiences at home is their vision,” said Diogenis Papiomytis, an aerospace analyst with the technology research firm Frost & Sullivan in Dubai. “They want to provide seamless connectivity from airport, to aircraft, to when you land at your final destination.”
But technical challenges remain.
In the past, experts say, airlines’ attempts to bring connectivity to aircraft have been hampered by telecommunications technology that soon became outdated or was quickly overwhelmed by unexpectedly high consumer demand.
Until very recently, internet services on Delta and American Airlines, among others, were sluggish at best, although airline executives say connectivity speeds are improving. And many of the in-flight entertainment services on decades-old planes have not been upgraded to keep pace with what many travelers can readily gain access to on their smartphones or other mobile devices.
“The quality of screens on the latest tablet is as good, if not better, than what you get on a seat-back display,” said Oliver Drennan, general counsel for SitaOnAir, a company in Geneva that provides onboard internet and movie-streaming services for airlines including British Airways and Emirates. “Wireless entertainment will continue to grow enormously,” Mr. Drennan said.
Much of this momentum is because of multimillion-dollar investments from Gogo, currently the largest onboard Wi-Fi provider, and its competitors, which aim to approach or even match internet speeds available on the ground.
About 2,600 commercial aircraft currently use Gogo services. And by the end of this month, about 75 of those planes will have been upgraded to give users internet speeds comparable to what their smartphones can provide on the ground, according to John Wade, Gogo’s chief operating officer. As many as 450 additional planes are to receive similar improvements next year, he said.
The new high-speed services are available on aircraft from Delta and Virgin Atlantic, among others, and represent a significant upgrade to Gogo’s existing connectivity options, which have mainly been limited to sending emails or checking social media.
ViaSat, another access provider, can offer something better. Currently, 550 planes, including those from JetBlue’s fleet, use the company’s high-speed satellite network, which already offers speeds similar to those available on people’s smartphones. The satellite-delivered service is typically free for streaming Netflix and other internet content, no matter where the planes are in the sky.
Travelers can pay hourly to upgrade if they want to use faster spends for online gaming and other bandwidth-heavy activities. ViaSat plans to expand internationally next year with deals with the likes of Qantas and SAS, and extend its global coverage through two additional satellites by 2019.
“Wi-Fi is becoming part of a carrier’s amenity package,” said Don Buchman, vice president for ViaSat’s commercial mobility division. “If drinks and peanuts are free, why shouldn’t Wi-Fi?” He said ViaSat planned to extend its global coverage through two additional telecom satellites by 2019.
And what might the in-flight entertainment system of the future look like?
Anaïs Marzo, head of aircraft interiors marketing at Airbus, the European aircraft giant, said that passengers now wanted almost constant access to their social media feeds, email accounts and other digital services. But she said that would not detract from traditional onboard options and seat-back television screens, particularly in business or first class where large high-definition displays are now the norm.
“More and more people are relying on their own devices on board,” Ms. Marzo said, adding that about 60 percent of Airbus’s worldwide fleet, or 16,500 planes, will have some sort of internet connectivity by 2025. But having a smartphone, she said, “doesn’t exclude using a back-of-seat display.”
Others are not so sure.
Some airline executives say that travelers’ increasing reliance on their own devices is making carriers review their existing onboard entertainment options. Heavy built-in screens and the miles of fiber-optic cable that serve them, they note, can add significant weight — and cost — to every flight.
Vincent Tomasoni is head of product at XL Airways, the French carrier that, along with offering passengers Skylights’ new 3-D headsets, also rents tablets to its onboard customers. He says the ability to offer streaming content over in-flight Wi-Fi represents a change for many airlines.
Passengers can continue using their own devices while accessing a larger pool of movies, television shows and radio programs, he said, enabling airlines to consider scrapping traditional in-flight entertainment hardware and reducing the cost and complexity of such services.
“The world of seat-backed entertainment is over,” Mr. Tomasoni said.
That is where Mr. Dicko hopes to step in with his SkyLights 3-D headset.
Since Mr. Dicko’s company was founded 18 months ago, he and his team have flown thousands of miles to test the headset with passengers. They also are looking to sign more content partnerships beyond those SkyLights currently has with 21st Century Fox and DreamWorks, to offer a larger number of 3-D movies — and potentially other virtual reality content — to travelers.
“Airlines are difficult players to deal with because they are risk-averse and slow to innovate,” said Mr. Dicko, whose team has tested the SkyLights system with seven carriers worldwide, including Air France-KLM.
“We needed their own passengers to tell them that they liked our headset,” he added. “At first, people would only use it for 15 minutes. But now, they’re using it for four hours.”
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