Data Is Only Part of the Content Curation Strategy, Airlines Say


Illustrations: Manuel C√≥rdova

Airlines are increasingly using passenger viewing data to inform programming decisions, but also stress that relying solely on this information can be limiting. 

Whether it’s a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster or a micro-budgeted Sundance sensation shot on an iPhone, the road from the big screen to the in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen isn’t always as straightforward as one might expect. And in today’s content-saturated media landscape, passengers are more open to new content than ever before.

Box-office charts and top 40 lists still play a big role in popularity, but they’re definitely not the only influences. In fact, the people who decide what makes it into an IFE catalog say that the best way to discover truly great content is to sit down and watch, experience and listen to a whole lot of very unusual stuff.

“Our goal is for our passengers to see that the content has been carefully curated.” – Simon Cuthbert, Cathay Pacific

“The proof is in the pudding,” says Patrick Brannelly, senior vice-president of Retail, IFE and Connectivity at Emirates. “We look at external reviews, of course, but we don’t just rely on the hype or the trailers.” Emirates takes a hands-on approach to content selection and feels “uncomfortable delegating that too much,” with one of its major considerations being the diversity of its’ passengers.

Curating for one would be simple arithmetic, but doing so for millions requires a whole other equation. “Dubai is extremely cosmopolitan and our passenger mix reflects this on every route. As a result, we have to offer content that’s equally diverse,” says Brannelly, adding that more than half of the 1,500-plus movies Emirates offers are international.

Simon Cuthbert, Cathay Pacific’s manager of Entertainment, Platforms and Connectivity, Customer Experience Design, seems to agree. “Cathay’s demographics are varied, and preferences tend to differ much more across Asia than, say, in the West,” he notes. “The box office in mainland China, for instance, can have a Chinese movie at number one in one week, a Hollywood blockbuster the next and then a Korean film after that.”

Programming for a diverse passenger base seems to make sense for most carriers. At Air Canada, for example, there is no one passenger that the airline is catering to, says the airline’s manager of Entertainment and Partnerships, Hali Hamilton. “As a culturally diverse country, Canada is in many ways a reflection of the world, and our in-flight entertainment, in turn, also needs to be.”

While airlines try to cater to all preferences, they also take note of larger demographics within their passenger bases. JetBlue’s manager of Product Development, Drew Litavis, says. “Given our leisure-heavy network, we’re known to be family-friendly, so having content that appeals to younger audiences is a priority. We also have a large Spanish-speaking audience given our footprint in Latin America and the Caribbean, so we consider that as well.”

“We are obsessed with data. But it’s important to take a balanced approach.” – Drew Litavis, JetBlue

Although airline approaches to differentiating the content catalog vary, they agree that handpicked selections help reinforce their brand with passengers. Kiran Rayani, assistant manager of Inflight Entertainment at Southwest Airlines, says, “We have Southwest-created channels that highlight Southwest people, destinations and partnerships, all of which have received high engagement from our customers. Our customers are loyal and enjoy engaging with our brand both on the ground and in the air.”

Cuthbert adds that for Cathay Pacific, it’s not just a matter of the titles in the catalog: “Our goal is for our passengers to see that the content has been carefully curated: the order in which it’s shown, how it’s grouped within different collections and how it’s complemented by the reviews in our in-flight magazine.”

Litavis warns against devising content lineups for the sake of being different, but adds that passengers associating good curation with their brand is a win. “It’s about being able to personalize and target relevant content to our customers so that they have that moment of ‘Wow, yes! JetBlue just gets me!'” says Litavis. “That’s what makes people love a brand deeply!”

Airlines are increasingly using passenger viewing data to inform programming decisions, but many stress that relying solely on this information can be limiting. “Our approach is certainly data-driven. We are obsessed with data,” says Litavis. “But it’s important to take a balanced approach. If we don’t go with our gut once in a while, then we all might as well just be robots, right?”

Hamilton suggests that a balance between data and curatorial instinct is usually preferable. “I have always viewed data as a complement to curation, and that is reinforced as we analyze more of it,” she says. “In many cases, we have seen our assumptions confirmed by data, which is reassuring, but we have also had new learnings, which has allowed us to pivot our strategy to better serve passengers.”

Data deciphers what passengers are watching, which is part of what enables airlines to establish a content mix that really hits the spot. “We aim to provide a quality library of content that will move our passengers emotionally and connect them with meaningful experiences by finding something that’s truly special, unique and meaningful to them,” Cuthbert says.

However, data has its oversights. “IFE systems have been able to report to some extent on what’s popular, but you cannot be blinded by it,” warns Brannelly. “If one percent of passengers listen to classical music, but for that one percent of people it is all they listen to, you cannot ignore it. We use our instincts to prioritize what we think is popular, and we look at the data to see if we were right.”

Another trend making waves in flight is the growth of streaming-subscription or over-the-top (OTT) platforms. Although Brannelly insists any investment in new and original content that keeps passengers watching is ultimately “good for everyone,” airlines agree that the OTT boom has also completely changed passenger expectations. “Streaming services have brought upon a golden age of TV,” says Cuthbert. “A lot of incredible content that otherwise may not have been produced is now available, and our passengers now expect more choice, personalization and a simple, smooth user interface for enjoying entertainment during their flight.”

While much of this original content remains exclusive to the OTT platforms, Cuthbert is quick to point out that a flight is an ideal opportunity for binge-watching a new show and that streaming services like Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and Disney+ should view IFE systems as an excellent marketing platform. “I hope we can work more closely with streaming services to improve customers’ experiences both in flight and on the ground by introducing them to the best content,” says Cuthbert.

And while Hamilton, too, admits to being excited about the flurry of streaming service-airline partnerships, she says Netflix in particular has posed issues with an airline’s ability to capitalize on award-season accolades. “This year they have several of the major award contenders; however, we are able to offer our audiences a vast selection of the year’s best films, not just critically acclaimed Hollywood titles, but also independent, foreign and short films that they may not otherwise see,” Hamilton says.

“The days of clearly defined [content] formats are long gone.” – Hali Hamilton, Air Canada

One way of ensuring there’s still novelty on board is through alternative offerings such as short-form content, which is growing in popularity. “We’ve always offered this content, even when it wasn’t very common,” says Brannelly. “Our passengers love the big movies, but most like to enjoy something alternative as well, especially on long flights.”

Cuthbert agrees. “Toward the last few hours of a flight, passengers just want to sit back and relax with something shorter and easier to digest. Podcasts are a great example of this, but we have also started producing original, exclusive short-form content – most notably a multipart series on in-flight yoga and exercises such as guided meditation that people can do in their seats.”

Shrinking attention spans may also be a reason for the rise of short-form content, says Litavis, adding that JetBlue partners with a number of digital media brands such as PureWow, Thrillist, Well+Good and Inscape to create bespoke content: “Due to the flood of information out there, it’s harder for someone to commit to two uninterrupted hours to watch
a movie.”

Rayani at Southwest concurs, adding that the keyword moving forward is “snack-size,” with most of the Southwest-created content clocking in at less than 10 minutes. “Having snackable content gives our customers another option to explore. As product owners, it’s our responsibility to ensure our portal has a diverse portfolio filled with endless content options to cater to the different customers we fly.”

“The pace of terrestrial entertainment changes is faster than IFE – we have had to develop new licensing models and figure out how best to feature new forms of content on board,” says Hamilton. But she’s optimistic. “The days of clearly defined formats are long gone, and Air Canada is taking advantage of this new world. We have launched our Quick Hits collection to deliver short-form content to passengers in the way they want to receive it. We’re excited to do even more as we work with our product team to deliver increasingly innovative forms of entertainment.”

While there are a number of factors involved in picking top-notch IFE, Brannelly sums up today’s content landscape as such: Chief among them is factoring AI – actual intelligence – into every decision. “Passengers don’t just want to reach their destination, they want to enjoy the travel experience,” says Brannelly. “And that’s the whole point of what we do. We make flying fun!”

“The Chosen Ones” was originally published in the 10.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.