Opinion: IFE is an Essential Component for Airlines Building Back From COVID-19


Niall McBain joined Spafax as an Account Director in 1995 before becoming UK Managing Director in 1998 and CEO in 1999. Today, he leads Spafax’s diverse entertainment and media teams across over a dozen offices. Niall inspires an open and proactive approach to the evolving needs of Spafax’s clients and focuses on developing affinities between consumers and the world’s leading airlines and brands.

Many of us across the industry are still in recovery mode, but it’s important as ever to look ahead at how we’re going to meet the needs of future passengers and respond to emerging trends..

Niall McBain, Spafax

Less flights during 2020 meant that many airlines needed their IFE content refreshed less frequently. Now vaccinations and digital health passports are becoming commonplace, is Spafax starting to see increased airline activity? How is the company planning to ramp its operations back up?

We are seeing increased airline activity. There are certainly some markets recovering faster than others, but we remain positive as vaccines continues to roll out and digital health passports are becoming commonplace. Some of our airline clients that cut back to quarterly content cycles are beginning to return to monthly cycles. We’re also seeing the demand for IFE promos return, which is a great sign. As a business, this has been a period of accelerated change for us. We took the opportunity to focus on transforming our digital and operational processes and build a flexible system for the future. Since launching Buzz, our new end-to-
end CMS, we’ve seen an over 15% increase in our efficiency.

Has Spafax been affected by the lack of blockbusters being
produced/released during COVID-19? How have you adapted to enable more flexibility around content for airlines during this time?

Although there have been delays with some of the big Hollywood titles, we continue to see a lot of great direct-to-digital releases. With that said, ease of content discovery becomes a very important consideration. On our Profile platform, for example, we’re seeing passengers spend on average 45% more time browsing entertainment for their upcoming trip. Furthermore, some of our airline clients are seeing upwards of an 800% increase in unique Profile users. These stats tell us that IFE is in fact more important than ever for passengers and that we should continue to focus on ways to help passengers discover what they need – whether that be through IFE promos or via Profile.

Last year we also launched our Spafax Cinéphile service – a new world movie curation service enabling airline clients to secure the highest quality world movie titles at the earliest opportunity while guaranteeing the best commercial terms. With Cinéphile, clients receive a monthly brochure with key insights on programming strategy and suggestions for content promotion. The suite is offered as a bundled flat fee and provides airlines with budget certainty across the financial year. It has been a very welcome solution for our clients during COVID-19.

Travel audiences during the pandemic have shifted, with domestic travel taking precedence over international flights. Has this changed airlines’ wants and needs in terms of IFE? How has Spafax responded to these changes?

Although travel and adventure in the true sense is not possible for many at the moment, we see an opportunity to inspire and evoke a sense of excitement again around travel. The content teams at Spafax have not only delivered this inspiration to passengers across its existing platforms, we have also found new and creative ways to reach them. For example, as COVID-19 changed the travel landscape, we redirected Air Canada enRoute to the homes of Air Canada’s top tier customers: through distribution to select post-codes via Canada’s national newspaper The Globe & Mail; and with a 300% increase in online and social content. We also understand that safety is a very important story to tell at the moment for airlines. We recently completed a new safety video production for a client that featured the carrier’s home destination as a backdrop to take the passenger on an engaging tour through the safety information. 

Many think that leisure travelers will be first to return to the skies this summer. This may be true, but business travelers also need to be catered to. How are their needs different, and how does Spafax make sure both demographics are accounted for in terms of IFE?

Business travellers absolutely need to be catered to, as they can account for up 75% of an airline’s revenue. Spafax has known this for a long time, as demonstrated through our award-winning partnership with Business Traveller. We recognise the
importance of continuing to innovate for this demographic, especially during COVID-19 and beyond, as competition for business travellers increases.

Although the focus for airlines in the immediate term will be on leisure travellers, we are already hearing from our airlines about future investment in the business traveller. Over the next few years airlines are going to compete for business travellers and we’re here to help them maximise their revenue. With Spafax IQ, our airlines can see pre-COVID-19 trends as well as the most recent week-on-week content performance and content ROI, with easy filters for both classes of travel and routes. This enables them to target their content strategies to maximize their content appeal.

Towards the back-end of last year, Spafax made an announcement about Sprint, your new real-time content automation and distribution platform. How are things going with that? Has it been challenging working with new processes during the pandemic?

I think one of the most interesting things about this period has been the acceleration of change, particularly on the digital side, and we’re proud to say that the initial launch of Sprint is now live. Getting Sprint up and running helps us ensure a robust, secure and scalable 24-hour service during the pandemic and, most excitingly, enables content delivery at any point outside of the normal monthly delivery points.