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Delta Is Betting on Tablet Technology to Solve In-Flight Entertainment Conundrum

  • Skift Take
    Maybe Delta’s new in-flight screens on its Airbus A220s will be better than previous generations. Or maybe they won’t be. Either way, Delta deserves credit. Few of its competitors put screens on domestic airplanes anymore. Delta could have easily gone without them.

    Even in an age of mobile phones and tablets, travelers — particularly infrequent flyers — often say they still like seat-back screens on airplanes.

    Many airlines take a different view. The screens are expensive to operate and maintain, and they’re often technologically obsolete within a few years. But since airlines hate to mess with what’s already on board, the screens fly well past their prime. It’s why many airlines, including United Airlines and American Airlines, no longer install embedded systems in short-haul aircraft. American is even removing them from most planes.

    Last week, in a discussion on stage at Skift Global Forum, Delta CEO Ed Bastian told me his team believes it has solved this problem by investing in a new wireless embedded system for next-generation, short-haul aircraft. The system, which relies on tablets mounted in seats, will be called “Delta Wireless IFE,” though Gogo will provide some of the back-end technology through what it calls Gogo Vision Touch.

    We’ll have to see how it performs. But it has the makings of a promising investment for Delta and passengers. Bastian said it usually costs more than a million per aircraft to install wired entertainment systems, but said this technology will decrease that cost by roughly two-thirds.

    “A wireless IFE is great because it means we don’t have to wire the planes anymore,” Bastian said. “We just put the tablet on the back of the seat headrest as a display panel.”

    What do you make of Delta’s investment in new technology?

    — Brian Sumers, Senior Aviation Business Editor [bss@skift.com, @briansumers]

    Best on Skift

    Delta CEO Declares Free In-Flight Wi-Fi Is Coming: Delta’s Bastian has said this before, and it makes for a good applause line. But I find it surprising. Yes, the cost to provide Wi-Fi on an airplane probably will come down with time. But even when it does, why give away a product people are accustomed to paying for? Remember, Delta’s best customers generally fly for business, and they don’t have much trouble expensing Wi-Fi. Why make it free? (JetBlue is a leisure airline, and fewer of its customers have expense accounts, so it makes more sense for it to have free Wi-Fi.)

    JetBlue Still Just Wants to Be Loved: JetBlue is not the same airline it was in the David Neeleman era. We’ve known that for a while, but we received further confirmation a few weeks ago when JetBlue led all U.S. airlines by raising bag fees to $30. But the airline is still betting it can be a little more lovable than its competition. “We’re going to be competitive in fees, and we’re going to win on product and the service that we offer,” its president, Joanna Geraghty, told me last week at Skift Global Forum.

    Why American Airlines Brought Big Bags Back to Basic Economy: A lot of travelers, particularly infrequent customers, tend to think airlines are docile competitors. But that’s not what I have found. At Skift Global Forum, I asked American President Robert Isom why the airline decided to let basic economy flyers bring a large carry-on for free, after resisting for more than a year. The problem was Delta. It didn’t copy American’s strict bag rules, so American walked it back. “We stood out there for a year and that was enough,” Isom told me.

    JetBlue Lays Out a Growth Plan by Doubling Down on 3 U.S. Cities: Just a few days after Geraghty spoke with me on stage, JetBlue held its investor day, and executives assured Wall Street the airline is in fine shape. But its stock, which is down for the year, hardly moved after the event. Investors probably want to see more from America’s sixth-largest airline.

    United Airlines Moves the Goalpost for Earning Top-Tier Elite Status: United Airlines is making it slightly tougher for its best customers to reach the 1K level of its frequent flyer program. This is for customers who record at least 100,000 elite qualifying miles per year, and spend a certain amount of money. You might call this a passenger-unfriendly move, but I would disagree. Elite frequent flyers like to be part of an exclusive group, and when there are too many flyers at the top level, that isn’t true.

    Fast-Growing Primera Air Ceases Operations: Is anyone surprised? This was not a particularly well-run airline, and it grew too much, too quickly. Here’s a better question: What will be the next European airline to go bust?

    Cheaper Flights Come to Argentina Even as the Economy Continues to Struggle: I’m thrilled to welcome my former colleague at Aviation Week, Kristin Majcher, as Skift’s newest airline contributor. Majcher lives in Colombia and will bring a unique expertise on South American airlines. Here, she walks us through the current aviation landscape in Argentina, which has changed remarkably over the past year.

    Best of the Rest

    Why Your Airline Seat May Shrink Even More Under New Regulations: I’m quoted in this story from Marketwatch. Like a lot of insiders, I don’t expect the Federal Aviation Administration, which is being charged with setting seat size minimums for U.S. carriers, will crack down on airlines. I’m sure 27-inch pitch in a 17-inch across seat will be just fine for the nation’s safety regulator. (Related: I said something similar on public radio last week in Los Angeles.)

    Why You Should Be Glad to Sit in the Middle Seat: I’ve enjoyed chatting with Samuel Engel, leader of the aviation group at consultancy ICF, as he has raised his media profile. This week he argues in Quartz that U.S. airlines have never been more comfortable. “When we talk about how great air travel used to be, are we talking about my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s, when roving bands of Hare Krishnas marauded passengers in smoke-filled terminals?” he writes. “Or perhaps we mean the great decades before. Until the early 1960s, it took 11 hours to cross the country in a Super Constellation, all four propellers buzzing the whole way, except during the fuel stop.”

    United: New 787-10 Dreamliners to Debut on Newark-California Routes: United will begin flying its Boeing 787-10 early next year, first from Newark to Los Angeles and then from Newark to San Francisco. Ultimately, these aircraft are expected to fly to Europe, as they have a shorter range than the 787-8s and -9s United sends to Asia. While the 787-10 flying cross-country could be a short-term way to test the aircraft, it’s not a bad strategy. The aircraft have lots of premium seats, and premium demand is strong in California and New York. Ben Mutzabaugh from USA Today has details.

    Welcome to Airline Weekly

    I’m excited to share that Skift has acquired Airline Weekly, a 14-year-old publication led by Jay Shabat, Seth Kaplan, and Jason Cottrell.

    Airline Weekly is a premium newsletter, and this team knows nearly everything about airplanes and airlines. Every week, they put out stellar content. And earlier this year, they scored a major coup when they broke news that Neeleman, JetBlue’s founder, planned to start a new U.S. airline with Airbus A220s.

    I’ll continue to write this newsletter, but if you’re looking for more in-depth coverage, you may want to consider subscribing to Airline Weekly.

    Contact Me

    Skift Senior Aviation Business Editor Brian Sumers [bss@skift.com] curates the Skift Airline Innovation Report. Skift emails the newsletter every Wednesday. Have a story idea? Or a juicy news tip? Want to share a memo? Send him an email or tweet him.

    Photo Credit: Delta Air Lines will debut a new entertainment system on its Airbus A220s, slated to start flying this winter. Delta Air Lines
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