July 25, 2024

Reach for the stars

Airlines are increasingly looking to stand out from competitors on the strength of their IFE content.

If you are of a certain age, you were probably told by your parents that you’d ‘end up with square eyes’. Too much Saturday morning television and not enough fresh air was going to cause all sorts of problems for us kids in the future. Ha…if only they’d known!

Fast forward a few decades and the average consumer spends almost seven hours each day interacting with a screen. While that might be an astonishing statistic, it’s one that airlines are increasingly looking to exploit.

Fast forward

Inflight entertainment has become a new battleground for carriers looking to build brand loyalty and stand out – a vital survival tactic after years of commoditised ticket pricing.

Attention has turned to the breadth of content offered in a market estimated to cost the sector around $500 million each year. And while no customer will choose a flight based on its entertainment choice, factors such as relevance, variety and personalisation of the menu go a long way to set the tone to build a fruitful, and hopefully long, relationship.

“The Covid-19 lockdowns really accelerated changes in consumption habits,” explains Tanguy Morel, CEO at Moment. “People on flights want to watch like they are at home. Nowadays everyone is used to the instant, on-demand nature of streaming services and so they expect airlines to have a wide range of entertainment that appeals to them and their lifestyle.”

Unsurprisingly, movies and TV shows still take centre stage, accounting for approximately 80% of ‘interaction time’ on major carriers, alongside a mix of music, podcasts, games and maps. Nabbing blockbusters is still important but much more relevant is building a collection with the broadest appeal.

While many airlines outsource this content provision to third-party agencies, Delta employs an in-house team of five to oversee its IFE selection. Constant evolution is the name of the game here – changing tastes in recent years have seen an increased demand for content encompassing wellness and self-help, business and leadership, and short-form entertainment that mirrors the most popular videos on social media such as TikTok and YouTube.

“The inflight entertainment curation process is a mix of art and science,” explains Ekrem Dimbiloglu, the airline’s Managing Director, In Flight Entertainment and Connectivity Design. “Our team looks at usage data and our own research on box office performance, industry trends and hidden gems to inform the content we bring onboard. We have partnerships with most of the major movie studios to add fresh content monthly.”

Pause and rewind

So, what’s the secret to a fully rounded IFE programme? The answer starts with technology. Huge advancements in server storage capacity mean wide-bodied long-haul services carry a huge library stretching into thousands of hours of viewing and listening. While Covid-19 might have sparked a brief shift towards promoting the use of personal electronic devices (PEDs), the trend now is definitely drifting back towards more expensive seatback screens, which are seen as ‘tying’ passengers to the overall airline experience rather than have them distracted by something else on their own screens.

Aside from the latest releases, established hits from all genres are a must-have, since passengers love to rewatch classics. And whereas in the past carriers might just have one or two random episodes of a popular TV show, options now often include multiple themed channels featuring ‘bingeable’ full series across comedy, drama, documentaries and sport.

“We are always careful to integrate timeless content into airline content strategies. Classics from the golden era of Hollywood do very well in terms of view rates and older TV comedies like Seinfeld, Frasier and Friends are seeing a big resurgence,” says Spafax Senior Vice President, Content Experience Maura Chacko.

Elsewhere, many carriers are more inclined to set themselves apart by emphasising their distinct national characteristics. Air Corsica features films shot on the island, alongside a host of documentaries aimed at inspiring visiting holidaymakers. Meanwhile, Air France underlines its sense of sophistication each year by showing a selection of Cannes Film Festival nominees. British Airways also makes a feature of its full Harry Potter collection.

With podcasts booming on the ground, carriers are also looking to build their audio content too. Exclusivity is key here – Delta has a deal with Spotify to offer 100 of its top podcasts, while Spafax heralds its tie-up with Steven Bartlett’s hit, Diary of a CEO. United, meanwhile, has a deal with US studio A24, which offers movie-themed podcasts from stars including Emma Stone.

Continue watching

As this fight to appeal intensifies, it’s no surprise that airlines are ramping up efforts to ‘personalise’ IFE and it is here where the biggest opportunities present themselves.

“We are racing to a place where your airline can make individual entertainment recommendations, such as the Delta Sync offer,” says Valour Consultancy’s Senior Analyst David Whelan. “The dream scenario is offering that ‘Netflix’ experience, since it builds a special relationship with customers. Carriers could recommend content based on what you’ve liked before, you could pick up watching something you got halfway through on a previous flight or be recommended your favourite drinks or snacks based on purchase history. I’d expect this to be pretty common within five years.”

The use of cloud-based storage is also proving a boon. Many short- and medium-haul airlines still update IFE systems manually, meaning aircraft must spend time on the ground while content is changed. However, the process can be sped up considerably using fast 5G connections, with cloud-based content ‘zapped’ to plane servers between flights. This allows for even weekly IFE updates and ensures frequent flyers are well catered for.

Going live

Beyond this, the next battleground is sure to be Wi-Fi connectivity. Ever-faster satellite links already make it technically possible for customers to access their own streaming accounts on PEDs, but promoting this as an option is counter-intuitive for carriers keen to lock-in loyalty.

Instead, the obvious solution is to increase access to ‘live’ TV coverage instead, particularly where this coincides with major events, such as sport. Air New Zealand, for example, cashed in on its nation’s love of rugby last summer by showing All Blacks games during the Rugby World Cup live on its wide-bodied B777 and B787 fleet, following on from Qatar Airways’ successful FIFA World Cup livestreams in the winter of 2022. BA ventured a step further for the recent coronation of King Charles, making the live TV coverage a special occasion for passengers with a side order of specially commissioned Joe & Seph’s Eton Mess bespoke popcorn and other royal-themed treats.

Looking ahead, Sport 24 has recently announced that it has acquired the rights to broadcast the UEFA EURO 2024 and Paris 2024 Olympic Games live onboard this summer.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a cost to all of this technological investment, and that’s something airlines will be keen to recover. As well as using interactive IFE to extend food and beverage consumption, the future certainly remembers fliers are customers.

“Raising revenue from advertising before movies and monetising games from banner ads and sponsored content is higher on the agenda for us now,” says Moment’s Tanguy Morel.

“IFE innovation is fantastic, but nothing comes for free.”