Individual TV monitors may be part of in-flight entertainment systems within the next decade with rapidly evolving technology. Passengers can also expect to find better screen resolution as well as more informational/entertainment videocassette programming on a variety of subjects.
"The next generation of aircraft, such as the Boeing 7J7, McDonnell Douglas MD-11 and Airbus A-320, will enable airlines to offer more diverse flight entertainment tailored more for individual preferences, like the audio programming," Bob Ketelson said. He is aircraft product-planning manager for United Airlines and president of the World Airline Entertainment Assn., an international nonprofit organization.
"We've moved away from film to video, which permits more programming," Ketelson said. "In the past we were locked into programming targeted for the majority, with no capacity for individual programming. Airlines are going to have to make hard decisions on what to order with new planes and what to retrofit on existing planes, and some carriers might use the new technology in phases."
Several airlines already have installed a new generation of ceiling-mounted TV monitors on their aircraft to replace the one large screen in the front of each cabin. "These TV screens, about one every six or seven rows of seats, provide much better resolution than the current video projection system," said George Sahler, section manager, in-flight entertainment for Lufthansa and association chairman. "The resolution will also be better than that found on the TV sets in most American homes."
Within Five Years
Sahler predicted that most airlines will be using the new system within five years. "This is the first step toward utilizing an individual monitor system per seat whereby passengers will be able to select movies just like they do audio programs," Sahler said. "This enhancement might be available by the mid-1990s."
Such TV monitors might be placed on the seat in front of you where the tray usually is now, or on the armrest. Another option might be a ceiling-mounted set per row of seats.
"These seat-based screens would have to be 4 by 6 inches to provide adequate viewing," Ketelson said. "One of the questions to be resolved is whether to combine new video programming with existing audio programming. But more individual in-flight entertainment will eventually replace the large screen in front of the cabin system."
Not far beyond this development, Sahler also forecast, will be consistent ground-to-air live TV programming through satellite communications. "Several companies are working on this project, and we expect to have the system in place before the turn of the century."
Under this development, passengers might be able to choose their favorite TV shows. "What programming is made available depends on the individual airline. What we see is much more in-flight entertainment differentiation based on both the route and class of service," Sahler said.
The changeover in airline use of cassettes instead of prints also permits more carrier flexibility in programming, Sahler said. "Airlines are developing in-flight video libraries, and selection from these libraries may eventually be opened up to some extent to passengers when the individual monitor system is in place. Programs are already in use on safety, arrival formalities, duty-free shopping as well as children's cartoons."
Another advantage to this type of individual programming, Ketelson said, is that passengers may be able to play back programming on subjects such as gate information that they might have missed the first time around.
Audio programming is also improving, Sahler said, through smaller and electrodynamic headsets. "The auditory quality is much better, and the smaller units also mean less storage space for the airline. In addition, the new technology in audio systems permits use of standard consumer cassettes. In the past, airlines had to have special ones produced for in-flight use."
A key change in the scope and operations of in-flight entertainment is coming from better communication between the airlines and the plane manufacturers, Sahler said. "In the past, the jets were built to fly and the airlines added what they needed for in-flight entertainment purposes. But with the next generation of aircraft, these needs are being integrated into the jet's specifications from the outset."
For example, Sahler said, airlines used to decide where to put their video control center on the jet. Now manufacturers will provide options on placement of entertainment hardware in their proposals. "I expect that there will be some sort of under-the-floor construction permitting all the wiring systems needed to connect the VCRs with the PCU (passenger control unit) at each seat."
Another option, Ketelson said, might be a wireless system, possibly using infrared transmissions, to eliminate wires running between seats to one control center.
With all the changes in in-flight entertainment coming up in the next five to seven years, look for the airlines to spend more time and money in marketing their programming aloft once the new systems are in place.