Industry Experts Predict How the Pandemic Will Change IFEC and Onboard Retail


World Aviation Festival IFEC panel

This year’s virtual World Aviation Festival included a panel session about the long-term future of IFEC and its associated retail challenges and opportunities. APEX Media director Maryann Simson chaired the session, which featured industry experts from Panasonic Avionics, Viasat, Emirates and El Al. One of the main takeaways is that passengers’ personal electronic devices will play an exponentially more important role in the in-flight experience, whether acting as a remote control for seatback IFE or allowing passengers to reserve a spot in line for the lavatory and make in-flight purchases.

As airlines grapple with the existential threat of the ongoing pandemic, in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) specialists at this year’s World Aviation Festival managed to distil some clarity by identifying the pandemic’s long-term impact on IFEC, and the emerging trends.

1 – Connectivity will no longer be regarded as an ancillary

“Hygiene is probably going to drive the shift towards mobile as well as a move towards convenience, and digitizing the physical components such as magazines and duty free,” said Ultan O’Brien, head of Global Sales for IFE and Connected Platform (IFEC+) at Viasat. O’Brien believes that, potentially, even onboard lavatory queues could be managed using digital tech.

On the commercial side, he anticipates less investment in capital intensive programmes, with a move to squeeze more value out of the existing infrastructure that airlines have invested in. He said that airlines will potentially look at connectivity less as an ancillary, where they buy and sell data, but really focus on “how they use connectivity to enable change within the organization from an operational perspective, or from the passenger experience perspective.”

2 – IFE systems and processes will be expedited

At El Al Israel Airlines, now entering into a second lockdown with passenger flights suspended following a rise in COVID-19 cases in Israel, the pandemic “has forced us to push processes much faster than we prepared for before the crisis,” said Tal Kalderon, the carrier’s manager of Content Media and IFEC.

“This will lead us to a process where we will expedite the upgrade of the IFE systems to allow passengers access to stream content sites, because in the coming years our budgets will be different from what we have known to date and we will have to be very creative to maintain a proper level of service,” Kalderon said, adding that “One way would be to allow the passenger more use of the internet and in better quality.”

3 – Passenger appetite for connectivity will increase

Sebastien Petry, director of Innovation at Panasonic Avionics, observed that people “are addicted to entertainment, and when you’re on a plane for hours, it becomes important to keep people engaged.” Petry expects more digitalization of the interaction between airlines and passengers, due to the fact that “people stayed at home for such a long time, they became much more tech savvy, and they’re used to doing multiple things at the same time, so the diversity of content- different things passengers can do while they’re sitting in the cabin – will be key.”

Connectivity is essential, he remarked, so that passengers can stay connected, see the news, and have a chance to understand more about wellness options when they are on the flight. “Giving the passenger more control to design their travel journey, in a more active way, I believe is the trend we will see more of,” Petry said.

4 – In-flight purchases will take place on passengers’ devices

One question keeping IFE content providers awake at night is whether the pandemic has changed the passenger in terms of their IFE content and retail purchasing tastes and interests. “I’m not sure the passenger profile has changed,” said Patrick Brannelly, divisional VP of Customer Experience, In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity, Emirates. “They are clearly more concerned about [cabin] hygiene, but once they get past that and into the entertainment, tastes are fairly constant. On the connectivity, we did introduce lower-cost packages and text-only packages because people do want to be in touch more. We’re seeing a huge take up in that at the moment.”

In terms of buying content, Brannelly said the airline is going to be looking at what’s available and digging deeper into the independent catalogues, as the carrier promotes EmiratesRED, which denotes a convergence between retail, Emirates and Dubai. “We were selling packages for things you could do in Dubai – passengers can buy tickets on board for theatre or theme parks. That’s really the future – moving much more into virtual products. We’ll be selling through the person’s device, therefore connectivity is going to be key to the future.”

Viasat’s O’Brien agreed, explaining that “Being able to connect shopping experiences that happen traditionally on the ground, but without the dwell time currently that occurs in the airport – bringing those shopping experiences onto the onboard environment, and enabling passengers to connect with and access specific connected content – those are the things that we see from the personal electronic device (PED) investment side at Viasat.”

5 – Passengers’ devices will complement onboard IFE

Last year Panasonic Avionics exhibited some prototypes that demonstrated how PEDs could be better integrated into the total IFEC experience. “We believe there’s a huge opportunity to have the PED or smart device become part of experience, because if we look at what we do at home we’re a bit of an ADD generation — people want to multitask,” Petry said. “We watch a movie and we browse at the same time, or we want to go shopping while watching movies, so we don’t miss a beat.”

An extension of that, Petry said, is to look at how people bring personal content on board on their PEDs and cast it up to the seat back. “That’s definitely an opportunity that’s interesting to explore – to give passengers a larger screen that it is ergonomically friendly to view for hours at a time.”

6 – PEDs will become the remote control for seatback IFE

Probed on what sort of technologies would be required to make PEDs capable of controlling seatback screens in a seamless and intuitive way, Panasonic’s Petry referenced the company’s Welcome Aboard Collection, aimed at helping airlines tackle COVID challenges by using digital tools to build trust with passengers. One of the tools is a Contactless IFE Control, a feature that can be added to the Welcome Aboard companion app that allows the passenger’s smartphone to function as a remote control for the seatback screen.

“We’re trying to focus on a ‘less-touch environment’ and have a few solutions on that side. But also focusing on wellness and care, which we believe are a great topic that people need to hear to feel more reassured that flying is safe,” Petry explained.

O’Brien added that Viasat is already working with an airline that has PED-based remote control in place. “We’ve seen that it’s really popular with passengers,” he said, pointing out that Viasat is “agnostic in terms of any integration with any seat back provider.”

7 – Data remains key

Panasonic’s Petry said that airlines need to look at what data can do to inform and create contextual, personalized opportunities, which he believes is a key driver of passenger experience. “If we can use data to help target more personalized advertising, there are additional revenue streams that can be made available on premium paid services that people are willing to up-pay for, like certain live sporting events or premium games,” he said.

But there’s a snag. To plan for onboard retail and IFE content programming, airlines have traditionally leaned on data models they’ve built, based on historical information. “It has become challenging for airlines to lean on those same models,” O’Brien noted. “Airlines are adapting in terms of predicting what’s next, and I think the use of algorithms and machine learning will help. [But] if there’s reduced capacity and a reduced load factor, we have to consider that we’re going to be working with a smaller data set for the interim.”