In-Flight entertainment (IFE) refers to the entertainment available to aircraft passengers during a flight. At first, IFE consisted of looking out the window. (Zeppelin sightseeing flights were available in Europe before the First World War. ) In 1936, the airship Hindenburg offered passengers a piano, lounge, dining room, smoking room, and bar during the 2-1/2 day flight between Europe and America. ) After the Second World War, IFE was delivered in the form of food and drink services, along with an occasional projector movie during lengthy flights. In 1985 the first personal audio player was offered to passengers, along with noise cancelling headphones in 1989 . During the 1990s the demand for better IFE was a major factor in the design of aircraft cabins. Before then, the most a passenger could expect was a movie projected on a screen at the front of a cabin, which could be heard via a headphone socket at his or her seat.
The largest manufacturers of IFE systems are Panasonic Avionics Corporation, Thales Group, Rockwell Collins and LiveTV. Design issues for IFE include system safety, cost efficiency, software reliability, hardware maintenance, and user compatibility.
The first in-flight movie was in 1921 on Aeromarine Airways showing a film called 'Howdy Chicago' to its passengers as the amphibious airplane flew around Chicago. Twelve years later in 1932, the first in-flight television called 'media event' was shown on a Western Air Express Fokker F.10 aircraft.
However, it wasn't until the 1960s that in-flight entertainment (other than reading, sitting in a lounge and talking, or looking out the window) was becoming mainstream and popular. In 1961, David Flexer of Inflight Motion Pictures developed the 16mm film system for a wide variety of commercial aircraft. This replaced the previous 30-inch-diameter film reels. It was also in the same year when the first ever feature film titled By Love Possessed was shown on a regular commercial airline flight.
In 1962, Pan American World Airways, then better known as Pan Am, was the first airline to use television monitors on its planes. The television monitors were installed in the first class section of the Lockheed L-188 Electra. However, to that date all forms of in-flight entertainment were only being shown on domestic flights. The first airline in the world to show in-flight movies on an international route was Pakistan International Airlines which was in the same year.
In 1963, AVID Airline Products developed and manufactured the first pneumatic headset used on-board the airlines and provided these early headsets to Trans World Airlines. These early systems consisted of in-seat audio that could be heard with hollow tube headphones. It wasn't until 1979 when pneumatic headsets were replaced by electronic headsets. The electronic headsets were initially available only on selected flights and premium cabins whereas economy class still had to do with the old pneumatic headsets.
In 1971, TRANS COM developed the 8mm film cassette. Flight attendants could now change movies in-flight and add short subject programming.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, CRT-based projectors began to appear on newer widebody aircraft, such as the Boeing 767. Some airlines upgraded the old film IFE systems to the CRT-based systems in the late 1980s and early 1990s on some of their older widebodies. In 1985, Avicom introduced the first audio player system, based on the Philips Tape Cassette technology. Around the same time, CRT-based displays began to appear over the aisles of narrowbody and widebody aircraft. In 1988, the Airvision company introduced the first in-seat audio/video on-demand systems using 2.7 inch LCD technology for Northwest Airlines. The trials which were run by Northwest Airlines on its Boeing 747 fleet received overwhelming positive passenger reaction. As a result, this completely replaced the CRT technology.
Today, In-flight entertainment is offered as an option on almost all wide body aircraft, while some narrow body aircraft are not equipped with any form of In-flight entertainment at all. This is mainly due to the aircraft storage and weight limits. The Boeing 757 was the first narrow body aircraft to widely feature both audio and video In-flight entertainment and today it is rare to find a Boeing 757 without an In-flight entertainment system. Most Boeing 757s feature ceiling-mounted CRT screens, although some newer 757s may feature drop-down LCDs. Many Airbus A320 series and Boeing 737NG aircraft are also equipped with drop-down LCD screens. Some airlines, such as WestJet and Delta Air Lines, have equipped some narrow body aircraft with personal video screens at every seat. Others, such as Air Canada and JetBlue, have even equipped some regional jets with audio-video on demand (AVOD).
For the introduction of personal TVs onboard jetBlue, company management tracked that lavatory usage went way down. They originally had two planes, one with functioning IFE and one with none, the functioning one later was called "the happy plane".
One major obstacle in creating an In-flight entertainment system is system safety. With the sometimes miles of wiring involved, voltage leaks and arcing become a problem. To contain any possible issues, the in-flight entertainment system is typically isolated from the aircraft's main systems. In the United States, in order for a company's product to be considered safe and reliable, it must be certified by the FAA and pass all of the applicable requirements found in the Federal Aviation Regulations. The concerning section, or title, dealing with the aviation industry and the electronic systems embedded in the aircraft, is CFR title 14 part 25. Contained inside Part 25 are rules relating to the aircraft's electronic system.
There are two major codes that regulate flight entertainment systems and their safety: code 1301 which approves the electronic equipment for installation and use, by assuring that the system in question is properly labeled, and that its design is appropriate to its intended function. Code 1309 states that the electrical equipment must not alter the safety or functionality of the aircraft upon the result of a failure. In order for the intended IFE system to pass this code, it must be independent from that of the aircraft's main power source and processor. By separating the power supplies and data links from that of the aircraft's performance processor, in the event of a failure the system is self sustained, and can not alter the functionality of the aircraft. Upon the completion of all applicable codes the in-flight entertainment system is up to standards for use in the United States; however the rules and regulations may be different when applying for use in other countries.
The 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111 is an example of an installation of an in-flight entertainment system that caused a disaster. The MD-11's aftermarket in-flight entertainment caught on fire, destroyed aircraft systems, and incapacitated the flight crew, causing the aircraft to crash into the Atlantic Ocean.
The companies involved are in a constant battle to cut costs of production, without cutting the systems quality and compatibility. Cutting production cost consists of anything from altering the housing for personal televisions, to reducing the amount of embedded software in the In-flight entertainment processor. Difficulties with cost are also present with the customers, or airlines, looking to purchase In-flight entertainment systems. Most In-flight entertainment systems are purchased by existing airlines as an upgrade package to an existing fleet of aircraft. This cost can be anywhere from $2 Million-$5 Million for a plane to be equipped with a set of seat back LCD monitors and an embedded IFE system. Some of the IFE systems are being purchased already installed in a new aircraft, such as the Airbus A320, which eliminates the possibility of having upgrade difficulties. Some airlines are passing the cost directly into the customers ticket price, while some are charging a user fee based on an individual customers use. Some are also attempting to get a majority of the cost paid for by advertisements on, around, and in their IFE.
Software for In-flight entertainment systems should be aesthetically pleasing, reliable, compatible, and also must be user friendly. These restrictions account for expensive engineering of individually specific software. In-flight entertainment equipment is often touch screen sensitive, allowing interaction between each seat in the aircraft and the flight attendants, which is wireless in some systems. Along with a complete aircraft intranet to deal with, the software of the In-flight entertainment system must be reliable when communicating to and from the main In-flight entertainment processor. These additional requirements not only place an additional strain on the software engineers, but also on the price. Programming errors can slip through the testing phases of the software and cause problems.
Audio entertainment covers music, as well as news, information and comedy. Most music channels are pre-recorded and feature their own DJs to provide chatter, song introductions and interviews with artists. In addition, there is sometimes a channel devoted to the plane's radio communications, allowing passengers to listen in on the pilot's in-flight conversations with other planes and ground stations.
In audio-video on demand (AVOD) systems, software such as MusicMatch is used to select music off the music server. Phillips Music Server is one of the most widely used servers running under Windows Media Center used to control AVOD systems.
This form of in-flight entertainment is experienced through headphones that are distributed to the passengers. The headphone plugs are usually only compatible with the audio socket on the passenger's armrest (and vice-versa), and some airlines may charge a small fee in order to obtain a pair. The headphones provided can also be used for the viewing of personal televisions.
In-flight entertainment systems have been made compatible with XM Satellite Radio, and also with iPods, allowing passengers to access their accounts, or bring their own music, along with offering libraries of full audio CDs from an assortment of artists.
Almost all systems use the MPEG technology. Depending on the bandwidth and disk space of the fixed system determines the capability to increase the streaming from MPEG 1.5 (MPEG1) to MPEG3.5 (MPEG2). MPEG4-H264 is a new standard of encoding and requires specific modern systems to decode. MPEG4-H264 quality is near to MPEG2 however the file size is lower. MPEG4-H264 requires a license from MPEG-LA.
Video entertainment is provided via a large video screen at the front of a cabin section, as well as smaller monitors situated every few rows above the aisles. Sound is supplied via the same headphones distributed for audio entertainment.
However, personal televisions (PTVs) for every passenger are providing passengers with channels broadcasting new and classic films, as well as comedies, documentaries, children's shows and drama series. Some airlines also present news and current affairs programming, which are often pre-recorded and delivered in the early morning before flights commence.
PTVs are operated via an In flight Management System which stores pre-recorded channels on a central server, and streams them to PTV equipped seats during flight. AVOD systems store individual programs separately, allowing a passenger to have a specific program streamed to them privately, and be able to control the playback.
Some airlines also provide video games as part of the video entertainment system. For example, Singapore Airlines passengers on some flights have access to a number of Super Nintendo games as part of its KrisWorld entertainment system. Also Virgin America's new RED Entertainment System offers passengers internet gaming over a Linux-based operating system. RED also provides an open source gaming link, so passengers who are experienced in writing games can upload certain created games to the server.
Closed Captioning technology started in 2008. It is text streamed along with video and audio. This will enable passengers to enable or disable the subtitle/caption language. Closed Captioning is capable to stream various text languages. The technology is currently based on Scenarist file multiplexing so far; however, portable media players tend to use alternative technology. WAEA technical committee is trying to standardize the Closed Caption Specification. In 2009, US Department of Transport ruled a compulsory use of captions of all videos, DVDs and other audio-visual displays played for safety and/or informational purposes in aircraft should be high-contrast captioned (e.g., white letters on consistent black background (14 CFR Part 382/ RIN 2105–AD41 /OST Docket No. 2006–23999)
Regularly scheduled in flight movies began to premiere in 1961 on flights from New York to Los Angeles. Personal on-demand videos are stored in an aircraft main IFE computer system. From there they can be viewed on demand by the user. Along with the on-demand concept comes the ability for the user to pause, rewind, fast forward, or jump to any point in the movie. There are also the movies that are shown throughout the aircraft at one time, usually on a screen in the front of the cabin.
Some airlines have now installed personal televisions (otherwise known as PTVs) for every passenger on most long-haul routes. These televisions are usually located in the seat-backs or tucked away in the armrests for front row seats and first class. Some show direct broadcast satellite television which enables passengers to view live TV broadcasts. Some airlines also offer video games using PTV equipment.
Audio-video on demand (AVOD) entertainment has also been introduced. This enables passengers to pause, rewind, fast-forward or stop a program that they have been watching. This is in contrast to older entertainment systems where no interactivity is provided for. AVOD also allows the passengers to choose among movies stored in the aircraft computer system.
In addition to the personal televisions that are installed in the seatbacks, a new portable media player (PMP) revolution is under way. There are two types available: commercial off the shelf (COTS) based players, and proprietary players. PMPs can be handed out and collected by the cabin crew, or can be "semi-embedded" into the seatback or seat arm. In both of these scenarios, the PMP can pop in and out of an enclosure built into the seat, or an arm enclosure.
Video games are another emerging facet of in-flight entertainment. Some game systems are networked to allow interactive playing by multiple passengers.
Later generations of IFE games began to shift focus from pure entertainment to learning. The best example of this changing trend is Berlitz Word Traveler that allows passengers to learn a new language in their own language. Appearing as a mixture of lessons and mini games, passengers can learn the basics of a new language while being entertained. Many more learning applications continue to appear in the IFE market.
Western Outdoor interactive (WOI) is one of the major providers of inflight games and content.
A moving-map system is a real-time flight information video channel broadcast through PTVs and cabin video screens. In addition to displaying a map that illustrates the position and direction of the plane, the system gives altitude, airspeed, distance to destination, distance from origination and local time. Moving-map system information is derived from the aircraft's flight computer systems. It is often generically referred to as Airshow, one of the first moving-map systems now owned by Rockwell Collins. Panasonic Avionics Corporation now offers a similar product known as iXPLOR on their latest IFE systems. Honeywell also offers a similar product known as JetMap. After the attempted Christmas Day bombing of 2009, the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) briefly ordered the live-map shut-off on international flights landing in the United States. Some airlines complained that doing so may compel the entire IFE system to remain shut. After complaints from airlines and passengers alike, these restrictions were eased.
In recent years, IFE has been expanded to include in-flight connectivity—services such as Internet browsing, text messaging, cell phone usage (where permitted) and emailing. In fact, some in the airline industry have begun referring to the entire in-flight-entertainment category as "IFEC" (In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity or In-Flight Entertainment and Communication).
Airline manufacturer Boeing entered into the in-flight-connectivity industry in 2000 and 2001, with an offshoot called Connexion by Boeing. The service was designed to provide in-flight broadband service to commercial airlines, and Boeing built partnerships with United Airlines, Delta and American. By 2006, however, the company announced it was closing down its Connexion operation. Industry analysts cited technology, weight and cost issues as making the service unfeasible at the time. The Connexion hardware that needed to be installed on an aircraft, for example, weighed nearly 1,000 pounds, which added more "drag" (a force working against the forward movement of the plane) and weight than was tolerable for the airlines.
Since the shuttering of Connexion by Boeing, several new providers have emerged to deliver in-flight broadband to airlines—notably Row 44 (which offers a satellite-based solution supported by the global Hughes Network Systems satellite infrastructure) and Aircell (which offers air-to-ground connectivity via a cellular signal).
In the past two years, many US commercial airlines have begun testing and deploying in-flight connectivity for their passengers: Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, and United among them. Industry expectations are that by the end of 2011, thousands of planes flying in the US will offer some form of in-flight broadband to passengers. Airlines around the world are also beginning to test in-flight-broadband offerings as well.
Some airlines provide satellite telephones integrated into their system. These are either found at strategic locations in the aircraft or integrated into the passenger remote control used for the individual in-flight entertainment. Passengers can use their credit card to make phone calls anywhere on the ground. A rate close to USD10.00/minute is usually charged regardless of where the recipient is located and a connection fee may be applied even if the recipient does not answer. These systems are usually not capable of receiving incoming calls. There are also some aircraft that allow faxes to be sent and the rate is usually the same as the call rate but it is charged per page. Some systems also allow the transmission of SMS.
More modern systems allow passengers to call fellow passengers located in another seat by simply keying-in the recipient's seat number.
IFE producers have begun to introduce Intranet type systems. Virgin America's RED Entertainment System allows for passengers to chat amongst one another, compete against each other in the provided games, talk to the flight attendants and request, and pay for in advance, food or drinks, and have full access to the internet and email.
Several airlines are testing in-cabin wi-fi systems. In-flight internet service is provided either through a satellite network or an air-to-ground network.. In the Airbus A380 aircraft, data communication via satellite system will allow passengers to connect to live Internet from the individual IFE units or their laptops via the in-flight Wi-Fi access..
Boeing's cancellation of the Connexion by Boeing system caused concerns that inflight internet would not be available on next-generation aircraft such as Qantas' fleet of Airbus A380s and Boeing Dreamliner 787s. However, Qantas announced in July 2007 that all service classes in its fleet of A380s will have wireless internet access as well as seat-back access to email and cached web browsing when they start flying in October 2008. Certain elements will also be retrofitted into existing Boeing 747-400s. Qantas has not yet disclosed who will be the service provider.
As a general rule, mobile phone use while airborne is usually not just prohibited by the carrier but also by regulatory agencies in the relevant jurisdiction (e.g. FAA and FCC in the US). However, with added technology, some carriers already allow the use of mobile phones on selected routes.
Emirates Airline became the first airline to allow mobile phones to be used during flight. Using the systems supplied by telecom company AeroMobile, Emirates launched the facility commercially on March 20, 2008. Installed first on an Airbus A340-300, AeroMobile is presently operating on Emirates A340, A330 and B777 aircraft. Emirates plans to roll out the system over their entire fleet by 2010.
Ryanair has previously aimed to become the first airline to enable mobile phone usage in the air, instead ended up launching its system commercially in February 2009. The system is set up on 22 737-800 jets based at Dublin Airport and will be fitted on Ryanair's 200+ fleet off 737-800 jets by Q1 2010.
Most airlines have their own brand for its in-flight entertainment system to differentiate themselves. Amongst them are: