More on in-seat video

Just returned from an overseas trip to Moscow, I am reminded of the rant I posted earlier about the constant interruptions on the in-flight entertainment system.

Everything I said before remains valid:

  • Know me by my flyer number and don’t repeat things to me I’ve already certified as knowing, like safety rules
  • Know my language (I input it, after all) and don’t bother me with announcements other than in my best understood language
  • Show me most things as text, perhaps in a crawl under my show. If need be, have me confirm I understand.
  • Tailor the message to my age and my location in the plane. Show me exits on the screen for my seat.
  • Cut back on the spam about how great your airline is, how wonderful the FF plan is or why I should buy duty free.

Today, instead you can see the visible frustration on the faces of flyers as their movie is interrupted so that they can here the translation into Russian of the long announcement they just heard in German and English.

Having good custom in-flight entertainment is good, and considered a major competitive feature, but already I see more and more people preferring to put out a tablet, even when they have a super-fancy system in the first-class seats. The tablet of course does not have the interruptions (even for the tiny number of real announcements such as in our case last week, “we can’t get the landing gear doors to close so we’re dumping fuel and returning to the airport”) and it also has, if you prepare it, customized entertainment that you know you want to watch.

Frankly, I am not sure who programs the video selections on many of the airlines but I have to suspect they don’t just try to get the best movies with good reviews. They either try to get the cheapest movies or have deals with certain studios — it’s amazing how few quality films they might have in a selection of 100 movies.

I also remain disappointed at how badly implemented most of the in-flight systems I have seen. They are all slow, with highly noticeable lags after keypresses, poor touchscreens, freezes and crashes. Any tablet or phone puts them to shame when it comes to UI and responsiveness. And to top it off, they are huge — on main airlines, many of the seats have reduced footroom to fit the box for the video system. (It also has other in-seat electronics I presume but still, it’s about 10x bigger than it needs to be.) This is odd particularly since in planes floor space and weight are at such a premium. A tablet computer, either fixed in the seat or on an anti-theft power/data tether, would provide a better system — smaller, lighter, better UI, cheaper, better screen — in just about every way. Of course when they first designed these seats years ago they did not have cheap tablets but there is little excuse to continue installing the old ones.

Wait, how could they have known? How could they have not known. It’s 2012. We’ve known for decades now that each year computer products get smaller, faster, cheaper and superior in major ways. When you are designing a system to install in the future, it’s a mistake to design it based on the current technology. You should bet that something better will be along and make your design adaptable to it. If nothing else your standard design is going to get faster and higher resolution — which makes the slow response time of the existing systems inexplicable.

Many airlines are starting to offer satellite TV. That’s better than the old limited selections (or in particular a single bad movie) but actually not too appealing. Aside from being full of commercials and ignoring your schedule, with TV the announcements and interruptions make you miss crucial parts of your show as they talk over them. More than once I’ve been watching a show on an airline to have them talk over the climax of the film.

I’m whining a lot but it’s because I do believe this is important. Truth is that on a flight you are often tired and cramped, and reading and working are not tremendously comfortable. I bring a book but read at a reduced speed. Having nice noise-cancelling headphones and a good in-flight entertainment system with quality content can make a make a flight much better, and it’s a shame that so many things are obviously wrong with the systems they have built. Today’s flights are stressful in any cabin, and a quiet and uninterrupted experience would do a lot to increase customer satisfaction.

iPads in first class

I suspect that many first class cabins will switch to a model of every seat having a tethered iPad that's pre-loaded with content. I think I saw a story about an airline that's already trialing iPads in first class (not sure about the pre-loaded content).

With WiFi in the cabin they wouldn't even necessarily need pre-loaded content. They'd just need a custom app on the home screen that connects to an onboard server. I'm not sure how well the WiFi bandwidth would handle up to a couple dozen simultaneous video streams, though. Watchable quality MPEG-4 480p TV and movie rips average around 1000 Kbps. The quality of seat back video tends to be considerably less than this. Plus they can use H.264 which is more efficient. So they could probably push out video under 400 Kbps and not get too many complaints.

Another problem is the passengers messing up the configuration of the iPads by deleting and moving apps around. Apple's not going to help them, there, by providing any tools to lock this down. Apple manages this in their own stores by wiping and re-installing every iPad and iPhone in the store overnight. That'd be too time consuming for an airplane turnaround, but they could just swap out the whole devices themselves with ones that have been wiped and re-installed at the airport. There are already systems available to do this for schools, so it's not too hard, expensive, or labor consuming.

Of course Android tablets could also be used, and there's more potential for customizability and locking down, there. iPads are the premium brand, though, so airlines would probably consider the marketing of having "the real thing" available in their first class cabins to be worth the effort. Later on I could see 7" Android tablets with custom software being locked into the seat backs in economy cabins, though. UI responsiveness, screen quality, etc. will be worse, but hey, it's economy.

goals of airlines

Never forget that the goal of an airline is not to give you a pleasant trip, it's to maximize profit per seat-mile. Giving you a pleasant trip is just a means to an end. Most people are not looking for a good in-flight experience, they're looking for one that's not intolerable at a low price and convenient schedule. Luxury airlines that pay attention to the aspects of the flight experience that you're complaining about have failed time after time, while low-cost airlines prosper. At least until you get up into the realm of timeshared private jets. At that level, the personal attention you want is a given.

Not that simple

As you may have noticed, airlines are giving more and more of the square footage on their planes to the luxury seats and competing heavily on them. Any new Business Class coming in recently is like First Class was not that long ago on international flights, with flat bed etc. The profit comes from these business flyers, and they are often more than half the plane.

Yes, in the back, it’s cattle class, get as many people in the seats as they can.

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