Editor’s note: This series, called Airline Insiders, introduces readers to behind-the-scenes decision-makers for airlines. Unlike our ongoing airline CEO series, Future of the Passenger Experience, we will not question the highest-ranking executives here. Instead, we will speak with insiders who guide decisions on airline operations, networks, marketing, and the passenger experience.
You can read all the stories in the series here.
Today, in the second installment of the series, we speak to an executive with Panasonic, one of the world’s leaders in in-flight entertainment systems for airlines.
Earlier this year, American Airlines announced something that might have been unthinkable a decade ago. It said it not only will accept new Boeing 737 Max aircraft without in-seat screens, but also signaled it will remove relatively new monitors from some short-haul planes as it updates its seating configuration.
American told employees it no longer makes sense to install screens, because they would be “obsolete within a few years.” It noted more than 90 percent of passengers travel with a tablet, phone or laptop, and with American’s new system, they can watch airline-supplied content on their own device.
American is not the only airline that prefers that approach for flights shorter than six or seven hours. In the United States, United Airlines stopped installing in-seat screens on many short-and medium-haul jets several years ago, while in Europe, Norwegian Air did not add integrated systems on the new 737 Max jets it flies from smaller East Coast cities to Western Europe. Some airlines, including Qantas, don’t have in-seat screens on some jets, but instead loan customers iPads or other tablets.
This is not the best trend for companies that make complicated in-seat systems, including industry leaders Panasonic Avionics and Thales Group. But for them, the good news is that most full-service airlines still prefer screens for wide body jets flying seven hours or more. Carriers, including American, still believe the cost — not only from installation and upkeep, but also from the extra fuel required to carry the systems — is worth it.
We spoke recently with Jon Norris, senior director of corporate sales and marketing at Panasonic Avionics. It’s Norris’ job to persuade airline representatives that passengers will demand in-seat screens in perpetuity. He said he’s bullish on the future of the industry.
We met with Norris earlier this month Singapore, where he was showcasing the airline’s new screens coming soon to its Airbus A380s.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Skift: Panasonic is among the in-flight entertainment leaders, or what the industry calls IFE. How big are you?
Jon Norris: We’ve got over 9,000 aircraft equipped with our in-flight entertainment systems and just under 300 airline customers. We have 1,750 aircraft with our [broadband] connectivity, and another 2,000 on backlog so we we’re a pretty major player in the industry.
Skift: The next-generation screens you’ve designed for Singapore Airlines are pretty. But I have an iPad filled with content I like. Why do I need your screens?
Norris: It’s all about personal choice. A lot of people might be like you and they bring their own content, but there’s also a world of content out there that you’re not aware of, and you can be surprised on the aircraft. You can have a lot more personalization and a lot more tailored experience.
Skift: My iPad is great, but if an airline has an embedded screen, that means it won’t have a tablet holder. Instead, I must use the tray table, and the viewing angle stinks. I’d prefer to cast my content onto your screen. Why can’t I?
Norris: The technology is out there. Some of the challenges still to be overcome are all around cyber security. You used to be able to put your USB device in and connect and port images or music onto the screen. I think that time will come again with some of the casting technology that is out there.
But a lot of it is down to airline choice, and an airline’s discretion about what kind of content they would or would not allow passengers to share on the seatback screen. You have to be very conscious. Imagine you’re in an economy or premium economy environment. You may be wanting to share content with your screen that maybe is not suitable for people on either side of you.
Skift: Singapore Airlines brags it has a Netflix-style algorithm that can predict what passengers should watch next. How does it work?
Norris: It’s a recommendation approach. We’re looking at your browser history and what you have viewed before. We are looking at what other people on similar routes have viewed and making suggestions so you can really tailor on a dynamic basis what it is that you want to put on your playlist and watch in-flight.
One of the neat features we have introduced for Singapore Airlines is bookmark and resume. Now if you decide not to finish watching a movie, or you run out of time, you can bookmark it, synchronize it to your Krisflyer account, and the next time you board you log into the seat back and you can resume watching that content. It is queued up for you.
Skift: American said it was removing systems from some planes because they become obsolete too quickly. Is this a problem? [Note: While American is a Panasonic customer, Thales manufactured the screens slated for removal.]
Norris: One of the challenges the industry has is the rate of change of consumer electronics. If you are trying to keep pace with consumer electronics, that’s a really tough battle to win. But your screen and your IFE is judged by people’s phone or the latest tablet. So we’re getting to the point where we are very consciously looking at how we can upgrade parts of a system, like the screen, on a more regular basis, but the backbone of the system can stay as it is.
A lot more focus now is on software and applications rather than the hardware. [It’s] about what the system does rather than what it is. We are trying to go the direction of being a little bit more hardware agnostic, and update pieces of it but try provide that enticing exciting environment and experience for the passenger.
Skift: Have you ever used an eight-year old touch screen? It’s not pleasant. Not all airlines update their systems often enough. What can be done?
Norris: Yes. It’s a balance. Clearly, Apple doesn’t provide you with a new iPad every two years. Just because you bought one doesn’t mean they’re going to give you the latest and greatest. There is a need to refresh on a periodic basis, and we are trying to find the right balance in how we can do that and make that viable for the airline.
Skift: Many airlines now prefer ‘bring your own device’ entertainment, at least for shorter routes. The airline might supply the content, but you must bring the tablet, laptop or phone. Does this trend concern you?
Norris: I think what an airline wants to do for the passenger experience for its customers varies hugely. It depends on region, it depends on the length of the flight, or whether it’s a narrowbody or widebody. With widebody aircraft, we are still seeing predominantly seatback embedded systems. A lot of the airlines, particularly with narrowbodies, that are taking streaming solutions are airlines that in the past wouldn’t have selected any IFE system. In the majority of cases, embedded systems are not being taken off.
The other thing is we live in an ‘and society.’ People don’t want embedded or streaming. They want both. The trend at home is about second screens. You watch the big HD 4K TV in front of you and then you have a tablet in your lap and you do something in parallel with what you are viewing. We are seeing that trend move onto the aircraft. We see a lot of airlines ask for seatback [systems] with streaming.
We will see seatback screens disappear from seats when people take TVs out at home.
Skift: When I ask airline executives why in-flight entertainment is still necessary, executives tell me customers love early-window content — movies and TV shows available before they’re anywhere else, including Amazon or Netflix. Do passengers enjoy that stuff?
Norris: Early window content is a very big draw. I think with the alternative distributors, like Netflix and Hulu, the pressure is on the studios to look at new ways of licensing and moving away from early window to things like simultaneous release.
Skift: So you could see a movie on a plane the same day it premiers in theaters?
Norris: Potentially. Or simultaneous release across all channels, so basically theater release would coincide with when, for a premium, you could theoretically get it on other channels — be it at home, or to view on the aircraft.
Skift: What fun stuff does Panasonic plan for the future? How will in-flight entertainment evolve?
Norris: We believe we’ll be able to dynamically modify content on an aircraft in service. An individual passenger could choose at home or in the lounge what they want to watch on board, and even if it isn’t scheduled to be on the aircraft, by the time they get on board it will be there.
In the not-too-distant future, you’ll see that an airline’s fleet will have a different content set on every aircraft, which will be dynamically changing because of personal recommendations and choices of what passengers will want to see. We are going to move completely away from the, ‘here’s the one month release of content on board.’
Skift: People don’t talk much about safety. But your systems go through rigorous testing, while tablets do not. What must happen before a Panasonic system can go on an airplane?
Norris: Certification is a critical part of of our business. Safety is a prime consideration. All embedded systems go through a rigorous certification testing which does include head impact criteria testing. It is all about reducing the force, if there was an incident, that is loaded onto a person’s body.
Skift: Are your systems made from different materials than a typical tablet?
Norris: It’s very similar materials but there are specific requirements in terms of not only how the materials deform during testing but also you have to make sure even if there is a crack, there are no shards, there are no sharp edges, and the screen, even if shattered, stays in one piece. It’s a complex system of testing requirements.
Skift: In our first Airline Insiders interview, we learned passengers treat airline bedding harshly, and often steal it. Do passengers abuse your systems?
Norris: Absolutely. I wouldn’t want to call it abuse, but people can inflict significant wear and tear on IFE systems — be it from jabbing at the screen with a sharp or heavy object, or pulling jacks out. I think some of it isn’t even deliberate.
Skift: Some passengers poke hard at the touch screens, and when you’re sitting in front of a big jabber, you feel it. Can you fix this problem?
Norris: Yes. We have very sensitive touch screens so there is no need to jab. They are very responsive. The kind of response you get now is what you’re used to on a consumer device such as tablet. That phenomenon will recede as systems get upgraded.