2012 in-flight entertainment predictions

Want to get lost in your rock and roll and drift away at 35,000 feet, take in a film, or surf the net? It’s going to be easier in 2012 as in-flight entertainment girdles the globe.

In-flight Wi-Fi is ascendant. “While airlines initially viewed in-flight broadband as a competitive differentiator, it is now simply viewed in the US market as a competitive requirement,” says In-Stat Senior Analyst Amy Cravens.

Look for pay-for-play Wi-Fi to accelerate its penetration of places far beyond the US. In-Stat says it “believes it will rapidly transition to a competitive requirement in [international] markets.”

While lots of airlines near and far are fitting their flying machines with ever more sophisticated in-flight entertainment (IFE), this country’s largest domestic carrier is yanking a popular freebee. Discount airline Southwest is pulling the plug on merger buddy AirTran’s popular XM satellite radio.

XM’s been a feature on AirTran since 2005. The carrier was the first to offer satellite radio, celebrating the launch in Vegas with Elton John. Those days are gone now. AirTran’s being absorbed into Southwest, and one of the first casualties is XM.

“The decision as not entered into lightly,” says Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins. “This is just another step in integrating the AirTran and Southwest products.” XMectomys have already begun, and should be wrapped up by Feb. 28, 2012. As a result, Hawkins says AirTran will no longer be promoting the feature.

In addition to standardization, the Southwest spokesman says the move should save some fuel. More weight on an airplane equates to more fuel burn.

Still, Southwest is anything put tech-phobic – particularly when that technology can generate revenue. The airline’s ongoing pay-for-play Wi-Fi rollout won’t be affected by x-ing out XM. Hawkins says the carrier is “moving toward Wi-Fi fleet-wide.”

Meanwhile, high-tech/high-frills Virgin America is moving toward a new iteration of its vaunted Red™ in-flight entertainment system. It’s based on BoardConnect, a cutting-edge new platform that replaces complex legacy IFE solutions. With the debut of the new Red, Virgin contends you’ll get larger high-def touch-screen seatback monitors. You can also connect your personal electronic devices to Red pre- and post-flight. That means while you’re taxiing out and taxiing in, as well as sitting at the gate waiting for folks to board and deplane. Beats staring at an in-flight magazine.

Look for the new set-up to appear on a Virgin America flight near you by late 2012.

Wi-Fi is winding its way into the cabins of smaller aircraft, not just mainline jets. Delta Air Lines lays claim to being the first carrier to fit its regional jets with the system. By early 2012 fliers can boot up and log in on more than 250 of Delta Connection’s two-class RJs, such as the CRJ 700.

Determining just which airplanes have Wi-Fi and which don’t should become a bit easier at American Airlines. Even as it battles its way out of Chapter 11 Bankruptcy the airline understands the importance of keeping high-tech customers satisfied. Go to www.aa.com/wifiwidget and find out if the flight you booked is fitted with Wi-Fi.

Even as it phases out its fleet of venerable MD-80 twinjets, American is installing Wi-fi on 150 of them. Loathe to lose any competitive advantage, “We realize how important in-flight connectivity is,” says Doug Brackelin, the airline’s in-flight communications and technology manager.

If you’re fortunate enough to leverage those AAdvantage frequent flier miles and cop an upgrade you might end up having a Samsung Galaxy Tab™ 10.1 in your lap. American is offering the tablets in its premium cabins on some select flights. You can punch up a slew of films, television, and radio programs.

Whether you choose to lose yourself in IFE or not, the proliferation of product has its benefits. “If nothing else, IFE keeps kids quiet,” says Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group aviation consultancy. “Kids put on those little earphones, and they watch cartoons and they’re quiet.”

This begs the issue of whether or not reading a book or checking out Mother Nature’s majesty from a window seat is better for them – but that’s another story. Conserving your sanity, and those of your fellow fliers, is as close as pressing ‘play.’

What’s your take on in-flight technology? Just how important (or immaterial) is it to you? Tell us. The airlines are all ears.

Story by Jerry Chandler

(Image: Virgin America)