—George C. Larson
Two decades ago, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, wanted to know what it would cost to retrofit his fleet of airliners with a flat panel display on the back of every seat. The answer: $8 million. The young Virgin Atlantic didn’t have that kind of money, and the bankers Branson went to for a loan didn’t see much promise in the idea. So Branson called Boeing and said he wanted to order some new 747s, all with seatback video screens. Boeing said they’d make it happen. In the end, Branson borrowed $2 billion to buy the jets, and let Boeing sweat the details. In 1991, Virgin became the first airline to offer seatback video in all classes of service.
Today, any airline that flies long-haul routes is expected to have seatback video. The technology, provided mainly by Panasonic, Thales, and Rockwell Collins, was created in 1982 —before Branson’s brainstorm —by a company called AirVision, founded by Los Angeles businessman and engineer Arn Steventon. AirVision later became part of Warner and Philips.
Branson now offers the everyman screen on all Airbus A319s and A320s flying for Virgin America, his two-year-old U.S.-based airline. Passengers use remotes with standard volume, channel, and forward/back controls. On the remote’s flipside, a mini keyboard lets them text chat with other passengers over a wireless network. They can build a playlist of favorite tunes from a library of 3,000 songs, and the system remembers it on their next flight.
“It’s not necessarily the explosion of the seatback screen,” says John Norman White, historian and co-founder of the World Airline Entertainment Association. “That’s the delivery part of it. The revolution is on the front end — the leap to giant servers. Very soon we’ll have a total of a terabyte of capacity on board that that will enable an airline to present 500 movies and 2,500 compact discs to its passengers.” Already, fliers on Emirates Airlines, a leader in inflight entertainment, can punch in their birth year and the system will play the top tunes from that year. Or they can select from specially made BBC content, such as a lengthy documentary on the history of classical music, with experts discussing composers and arrangements.
The Singapore Airlines A380 is a flying tradeshow of inflight entertainment. Singapore flies the farthest route, 10,371 miles, and the longest duration, 18 and a half hours, and considers inflight entertainment critical to passenger sanity. Business Class passengers enjoy 15.4-inch high-resolution screens, while the Suites Class fliers tune in to a 23-inch liquid crystal display that comes with a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones. But everyone on the airplane, including those in Coach with 10.6-inch screens, has access to the airplane’s riches of movies, TV shows, music, and computer games.
“What blows my mind is the cost of it,” says White. “If I told you the most expensive thing on an airplane is the airframe itself, that’s no surprise. And the engines come second. That probably wouldn’t surprise you either. But on the modern 777, the A380, the 787, the third highest expense is, you guessed it, the inflight entertainment system. You’re talking $15 to $20 million easily.” And that’s just for the hardware. Content costs millions more to license from domestic and international movie studios and record companies. Over the life of an airplane, say Boeing officials, the cost of inflight entertainment actually exceeds that of the engines. According to analyst Walé Adepoju of the Inflight Management Development Centre in London, between 2007 and 2012, airlines will be adding these systems to 3,000 commercial jets, at a cost of $4.6 billion.