“Industry Guru” Sue Pinfold Looks Back on 33 Years in IFE


Sue Pinfold’s career in the in-flight entertainment (IFE) industry spans four decades, during which time she has worked more than 80 airlines and launched more than 50 new systems. She was a recipient of the APEX Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. Now she is retiring from her current position as EVP In-Flight Entertainment at Spafax, APEX Insights picks her brains on the most significant changes to IFE technology in recent times, some of her best memories and her plans moving forward.

From Cassettes to VOD: Moving with the Times

Sue started out working for Sony Trans Com in the early 1990s, when everything was still on cassette. “Initially, I spent a good chunk of time screening content to recommend to clients who came in every month to make their selections. [Airlines] would then come in for the whole week, so for five days they’d be there, screening everything that was available and checking for scenes that needed edits,” she explained.

“Every day was a school day,” she recounts. “We once received a telex from Sabena in French asking for “4 more K7.” I translated it and went to ask the workshop if this “K7” was a part number for something. It was only when I reread the telex to myself in French, I realized what they wanted – K, pronounced “ka”  – and sept – pronounced “set” – they wanted some more cassettes!”

Fast-forward to her more recent days with Spafax and Sue notes that problem-solving is still a major part of the role of a content service provider, especially when it comes to client requests: “How do we get some kids content onboard a special charity flight next week? Can we have a budget for our new system by the end of the week (but we can’t tell you what the system is yet!) What is currently on board that we need to take off because a world event has had a huge impact?” she exemplifies. 

“You could add a program for a special event within a week – or if something onboard was a problem, you could take it off the next day. Wouldn’t we love that to be the case now?”

Ironically, Sue makes the observation that lead times were shorter back in the cassette days: “You could add a program for a special event within a week – or if something onboard was a problem, you could take it off the next day. Wouldn’t we love that to be the case now?”

She saw big changes during her time at Sony Trans Com. “When personal television (PTV) came in, there was no pricing model for that at all, so we were instrumental in creating that. One of the early adopters was Cathy Walters at Virgin Atlantic, we went through it all together, looking at how to approach distributors. By the time I left Sony, I was overseeing that process for around 40 airlines.”

Video-on-demand (VOD) had started to kick in shortly before Sue joined Spafax in 1998, where most recently she has taken on more of a strategic role, looking for ways to streamline and simplify processes and procedures; mentoring less experienced colleagues and clients; and just generally “knowing the awkward questions to ask.”

Going Above and Beyond for the Benefit of All

Throughout her career, Sue spent ten years volunteering as secretary of the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA), APEX’s predecessor. When asked about her most important achievements during that time, she fondly remembers the industry coming together in the wake of 9/11 to work collaboratively.

She reminisced, “Professional rivalry was not considered when Joan Barker (then Inflight Productions), Clare Josey (Sony Trans Com/Rockwell) and I (Spafax) compared notes about all the possible content that was on anyone’s aircraft that needed to be removed in those sensitive times.”

During this time and since, she’s traveled around the world for WAEA and then APEX conferences. While many trips were quick in and outs (Sue has been to Copenhagen five times but never actually made it beyond the airport!), she used the APEX conference in Singapore as a jumping-off point for a trip to New Zealand, where there was “much wine tasting!”

Fond Farewells from Industry Friends

“If you have a question about anything in IFE – ask Sue! She is the most comprehensive Wikipedia of our industry. She’s taught countless people, including me, the ins and outs of our industry and how to find the best solution for our passengers.”

Christine Ringger, Manager IFE, SWISS

“Sue Pinfold is the guru of the industry and the queen of Excel spreadsheets, hence I have always begun any encounter with her with “Your Ladyship.” She is a fantastic mentor and someone to constantly learn from. I am sure her contributions to the world of IFE will never be forgotten.”

Ayman A. Ahmad, Senior Manager In-flight Entertainment & Connectivity, Royal Jordanian

“In all this time, I have only known Sue Pinfold to want to deliver a product efficiently, accurately and in a timely manner for her clients. She is ‘no-nonsense’, runs a tight ship and gets the best out of her staff by setting the bar extremely high. It’s going to feel weird not having Sue around to organize us, but I wish her the very best in her retirement. Cheers, Sue!”

Mark Horton, Head of Worldwide Sales, CineSky Pictures

“A phrase often used around here is “If in doubt, ask Sue Pinfold,” and for good reason. Sue’s encyclopedic knowledge, tireless pursuit of perfection (and uncanny ability to spot a typo just about anywhere) have left an indelible impact on everyone who has worked alongside her or had the privilege, like me, to be mentored by her.” 

Lissa Laubertie, VP Client Services, Spafax

“I will miss Sue’s uncanny ability to assimilate incredible amounts of detail at the same time as driving the process forward, problem solving and making pragmatic decisions. She has been committed, reliable and thorough at every stage of our working relationship and we will all miss her encyclopedic industry knowledge and tenacity. All the best for the future, Sue!” 

Ann Willis, Chief People Officer, Spafax

Future Plans

It may come as a surprise to some, but Sue has somehow found time to be part of an amateur dramatics group that puts on two shows a year for the past 50 years. “Sometimes I’m just showing people to their seats or behind the bar. I’ve done props, prompting, lighting and sound effects. I used to play the piano at the early performances before technology enabled us to use speakers, etc.” She’s about to direct the group’s next production, Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” which will be performed in May 2025. 

She will also be putting her eye for detail to good use, volunteering for the Independent Custody Visiting Association, which will see her making unannounced visits to police stations to check on the rights, entitlements, wellbeing and dignity of detainees held in police custody. “I got involved through a neighbor of mine. The compliance element and checking the notes the police are taking are correct is much more familiar to my day job,” Sue jokes.

“I intend to continue traveling a lot, and trust that I won’t ever be in a situation where I have nothing to watch or listen to!”

Finally, Sue wants to spend time finishing walking the Thames Path, which she began exploring locally during the pandemic. “In total, I have walked from Windsor to Hampton Court in several different sections and completed so far only about 50 miles of the 185 mile path.”

And what about the future of IFE? Looking to the future, Sue predicts, “It will become more and more like entertainment is currently on the ground – each passenger having their individual choice, and sadly becoming less concerned with who is providing it to them. There are huge opportunities for airlines to continue to make a difference to their passengers to build brand loyalty so long as passengers still value that. I intend to continue traveling a lot, and trust that I won’t ever be in a situation where I have nothing to watch or listen to!”