In-flight entertainment evolves into a new age

Airlines take markedly different approaches to keep customers satisfied

Dallas Morning NewsAugust 11, 2013 

You can watch TV shows on many American Airlines flights. And you can watch them on many Southwest Airlines flights.

That’s about where the similarity ends.

Like many global carriers, American Airlines Inc. has embraced the idea that it needs to provide both the programming and devices to deliver entertainment to its customers.

Southwest Airlines Co. has a simpler approach: We’ll provide the programs, you provide the device.

Southwest and Dish Network announced a partnership July 1 in which Dish is providing a wide array of programming to customers traveling on Southwest’s newer Boeing airplanes.

But customers won’t find a single drop-down monitor or seatback video screen on a Southwest flight. If they want to watch the Dish offerings, they’ll have to whip out their smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Spokesman Brad Hawkins said that approach is consistent with Southwest’s simple philosophy. The carrier avoids extra weight, doesn’t have to invest in expensive technology and doesn’t have to worry that the technology quickly becomes outdated, he said.

“We thought that for our business model, it just made more sense to equip 75 percent of the fleet with the novel satellite-based Wi-Fi and invite people to use their own devices,” Hawkins said.

In contrast, passengers on American’s airplanes increasingly will see aircraft with a lot of technology. None shows that off better than American’s new flagship, the Boeing 777-300ER used on international routes.

Passengers in business class and first class have large screens at their seats. Every coach passenger has a small screen embedded in the seatback ahead of them.

Alice Liu, American’s managing director of onboard products, said customers can enjoy 250 movies, 180 television shows and 350 audio programs aboard the 777-300.

“We actually did a calculation. We think you can fly around the globe 15 times and not have to consume the same content twice. That is pretty nice,” Liu said.

“I think our view is that we should have an industry-leading product,” said Tom Horton, American’s chairman and chief executive officer. “There’s no better example of that than the 777-300.”

Horton is traveling to Hamburg, Germany, this week to pick up American’s first Airbus A319, which will also have state-of-the-art in-flight entertainment. And late in 2013, American will begin taking deliveries of the Airbus A321, a larger version of the A319.

“We’re going to have a similar product and design on the 777-300, the A321 and the A319, and I think customers are really going to love that,” Horton said.

The mainstay of American’s fleet at present, the 737-800, should get the same treatment in the future, Horton said.

Of course, the direction of American will soon be in the hands of a new executive team. American expects to merge with US Airways Inc. in the third quarter, once all regulatory hurdles and bankruptcy court matters are wrapped up. After the merger, US Airways chairman and chief executive Doug Parker and president Scott Kirby will run the airline.

Asked about what approach the new leadership may take to in-flight entertainment, a US Airways spokesman deferred to American Airlines’ comments.

At Southwest, the very decision to offer in-flight entertainment would seem scandalous based on its low-cost, keep-it-simple approach to the business. But to understand why Southwest partnered with Dish, one simply has to look at how its route system has changed.

In 1993, the average Southwest flight went only 376 miles, and the average passenger flew 509 miles including connections. In 2012, Southwest’s average flight increased to 688 miles, and its average passenger traveled 933.

The flights and trips only promise to get longer. While Southwest today flies only to cities in the lower 48 states and Puerto Rico, it plans to begin international service in 2014 and suggested that flights to Hawaii eventually will be added.

When the average Southwest Airlines flight lasted an hour or less, it didn’t much matter how its passengers amused themselves. But as Southwest’s route system has changed, its attitude toward in-flight entertainment has had to evolve as well, said Dave Ridley, Southwest’s senior vice president of business development and a longtime executive in sales and marketing.

The original thought was that laptops would be the device that passengers would use. In early 2007, when Southwest was well into its analysis, a Wi-Fi-enabled cellphone like a BlackBerry was a novelty. “But then the iPhone hit in the summer of 2007,” he said.

A few years later, tablets hit the market.

Southwest officials began looking for a way “toward in-flight entertainment, but not at a hard-wired cost,” Ridley said. “People are going to bring their own.

“So we got a two-fer out of the deal, to tell you the truth. … We feel like we caught lightning in the bottle a little bit.”

The Dish programming will be offered in Southwest’s newer airplanes, its Boeing 737-700s and 800s. There are no plans now to put Dish in Southwest’s older airplanes, the 737-300s and 500s, Hawkins said.

The carrier and Dish aren’t saying when the free trial might end or what passengers may be asked to pay afterward. But, Hawkins said, passengers are using the service.

“We’re seeing a very healthy response. It just launched on July 1, so we’re not at the point where we have metrics to share. But I would say that both parties in this partnership are very pleased with the results we’ve seen, and we’re hearing great things from our customers.”

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