Image via BBC Worldwide

APEX Insight: Passengers craving live news on board will be happy to hear that airlines are getting better at being the messenger.

Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news – but let’s face it, the headlines aren’t too cheery these days. That doesn’t mean passengers fancy a news fix any less. In fact, airlines are noting increased appetite for real-time headlines. American Airlines, for example, launched live television on long-haul international routes in 2015, and currently offers CNN International, BBC and CNBC via live satellite broadcast. Brian Richardson, the airline’s senior manager of Aircraft Interior, Entertainment and Wi-Fi, claims it has been very popular: “Usage can increase depending on world events. We saw large spikes during the presidential debates and US election results.”

Similar enthusiasm for live news prompted Emirates to equip 130 aircraft with live TV news using the Panasonic Global Communications Services system. “It’s extremely popular with customers who dip in and out of news channels. Naturally, big news stories generate more viewers who watch for longer,” an Emirates spokesperson says. The airline also carries live text news on its in-flight entertainment system, ice TV Live, which is updated throughout the flight by BBC News and Reuters. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of airlines taking BBC World News, so passengers have access to live news on demand, just as they’d have at home or in a hotel,” Zina Neophytou, VP of Out of Home, BBC Worldwide, says.

Live news reaches passengers at altitude via the airwaves, unlike recorded daily news segments, which are transmitted to unconnected aircraft on the ground via Wi-Fi, an onboard cellular network, satellite or, on older systems, via USB. “We receive Ku-band programming from the broadcast partner through our steerable antenna and into our receiver. Programming is distributed over an Ethernet bus to each seat,” Scott Easterling, director of Business Development Connectivity and TV at Thales, explains.

Although in-flight live news is increasing in popularity, passengers are coming to it in different ways. They may get a whiff of a breaking story via onboard Wi-Fi – perhaps on social media – then tune in to a live news channel. “Delivering cross-platform news has become an integral part of what we do, because that’s how our audience consumes news,” Neophytou says.

“Delivering cross-platform news has become an integral part of what we do, because that’s how our audience consumes news.” – Zina Neophytou, BBC Worldwide

“They want to be connected wherever they are, want to interact and be part of the story. No single screen is dominant. Audiences might access Facebook and Twitter to see what others are saying around the story, so social media works in harmony with television.”

Easterling agrees: “Consumers are adapting to a world where multiple screens are accessed simultaneously. Should [passengers] learn of a breaking event, they can tune in to live news, or, while watching live television, they can visit other websites to get additional information.”

One may assume that this multichannel, multiscreen arrangement leaves no place for non-digital news platforms. But Emirates sees a future for print: “We offer a significant newspaper product on the ground and in the air. We even print versions of local or national newspapers from around the world in Dubai for distribution in our premium lounges,” the airline spokesperson says.

A good example of this is the Sydney Morning Herald, which Emirates prints at Dubai International Airport at the same time as in Australia. “The demand from customers to read a newspaper shouldn’t be underestimated,” the spokesperson says. “We still see significant pickup of our paper product both on board and on the ground.”

“Ask a Smart Speaker” was originally published in the 7.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.