How Do In Flight Entertainment Systems Work?

In-flight entertainment (IFE) is one of the more exciting parts of long-haul travel, with most airlines installing screens on widebody planes. Depending on the airline you fly with, IFE can vary in the selection and quality of content. But how exactly do these entertainment systems work? Are they on their way out due to cost reductions? Let’s find out.

Turkish Airlines in flight entertainment screen
IFE systems have come a long way from bulky boxes below seats. Photo: Getty Images

History

While inflight entertainment might feel like a given on modern long-haul planes (on most carriers), the technology itself is newer than you might think. You may have noticed that some older planes still have drop-down screens from the overhead panel. These screens were the original IFE systems, with screens playing a single movie at a time. Passengers could individually plug in earphones and listen to the movie on the screen.

US Airways 767 IFE screen
Before in-seat screens, overhead displays would play a movie and passengers would put on headphones. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia Commons

Individual screens were unheard of until the late 1980s when Northwest Airlines ran a test of 2.7inch in-seat displays on their 747s. The airline received overwhelming support for this video-on-demand system and this sparked the IFE screen trend that we see today.

However, drop-down screens remained in service until the early 2000s with some airlines, until they were gradually phased out. Nowadays, most airlines come with large in-seat displays that offer a variety of content.

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How does it work?

IFE systems seemingly work without any visible wires. The wiring is actually tucked away into the aircraft walls, with the wiring starting in the top panel, next to the oxygen masks and AC wents. These wires then connect to the power units, which are present every few rows in the sidewall of the aircraft. Some small avionic systems are also present under the seat, completing the entire system.

According to Cranky Flier, modern IFE units don’t use too much wiring, allowing a few fiber optic cables to carry most of the data and power. This means the entire system is a lot lighter and streamlined now than before, where passengers routinely found large IFE boxes blocking their (limited) legroom.

Panasonic Avionics Welcome Aboard
IFE screens have become a lot less bulky in the last few years and now feature no visible wiring. Photo: Panasonic Avionics

The installation of IFE units happens along with the seats, when the plane is nearing completion. This allows teams to install the system and then cover up any visible wires under the interiors of the cabin. The reducing weight of these systems has allowed airlines to install more of these without spending billions on the project. However, retrofitting an aircraft cabin with IFE screens can still cost over $3 million per aircraft and the cost of fuel to operate each screen only adding to the price.

What about the content?

While IFE screens are exciting, the system is only as good as the content available. This is where individual airlines come into play. Depending on how much they are willing to pay, airlines could invest in new releases (which can cost them pay-per-view) or older content.

According to a report from Valour Consultancy, in flight movies are divides into early window content (EWC), late window content (LWC), and international movies. EWCs are the most expensive and feature movies that have just left the theatres. LWC includes all older movies, which includes classics and other content that might be as popular, and is much cheaper for airlines. International movies tend to be the cheapest and more region-specific, with fewer options usually available (except the carrier’s home country).

Delta Main Cabin IFE
Is any airline streaming Christopher Nolan’s Tenet on a plane yet? Photo: Delta News Hub via Flickr

Airlines usually negotiate content prices with Hollywood studious directly, with the price depending on the route being flown and box office ratings of the movie in question. For other movies, airlines can just purchase movies for a flat, yearly licensing fee. This airline movie business is a big one, with the market estimated to be $425 million last year. For early release movies, airlines pay roughly $32,718 (£24,472) per movie.

Additional content includes music, video games, a 3D moving map, and more options. While these all do add to the cost, movies still make up a bulk of the expenditure.

IFE screens are going out of fashion

While passengers may enjoy content on their seatback, airlines are slowly realizing that it’s far too expensive to maintain. The additional weight of these systems, the power needed to run them, and the cost of movies and screens is extremely high for carriers. Instead, airlines are slowly towards a new system: stream content directly to your device.

JetBlue A321neo IFE
Airlines are slowly dropping IFE screens and replacing them with content over WiFi. Photo: JetBlue

With most passengers now flying having access to a phone, laptop, or tablet, it’s much cheaper for airlines to ditch the bulky system and install inflight WiFi instead. Content can then be streamed directly to those devices, cutting costs for airlines. While this can drain a device’s battery, for planes will power points, this isn’t a major issue.

The future

While this year’s downturn has affected most innovations in the in-flight entertainment department, with airlines focusing on reducing services, there is still a broad future for this market. The growing prevalence of inflight WiFi allows for services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and more to become accessible over the air, shaking up the entire system as we know it. Most new generation widebodies are also WiFi ready, requiring little additional work to activate the systems.

Cathay Pacific Airbus A350-1041 B-LXH 1.1
Inflight WiFi can make streaming Netflix on a plane a real possibility. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | JFKJets.com

Inflight entertainment is an integral part of the flying experience now, with passengers having little to do on long-haul flights. However, as airlines look to cut costs in the coming years, we could be seeing more innovation emerge and more options to watch content on our devices.

Do you use the inflight system on your flights? What would you like to see in the next innovation of the product? Should airlines start dropping this technology and opt for WiFi? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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