The Evolution of In-Flight Entertainment Systems


14th January 2020


4 min


Sarat Pediredla

Once upon a time‚ the only form of entertainment a passenger could enjoy during a flight was looking out the window‚ reading‚ or talking to fellow passengers. Organised passengers may have even brought a deck of cards.

As air travel became increasingly popular‚ airlines began exploring ways to keep passengers engaged. In 1921‚ the first inflight entertainment system was introduced‚ offering a movie for passengers to watch.

In recent years‚ in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems have come on leaps and bounds. Most airplanes now have a tablet-like touch screen fixed into the seats. This concept (without the touchscreen) was first introduced in 1988‚ and has since been the most popular and commonly used type of IFE.

From their initial function as a screen to display an in-flight movie‚ these systems now offer route views and live views of the flight‚ as well as a choice of audio and video entertainment‚ rather than a single movie for all passengers. IFEs have seen significant developments over the decades‚ but with recent advances in technology‚ these systems are about to take flight.

Rising Expectations

[object Object]

Source: Flickr

As WiFi shifts from being a premium offering to a basic need‚ it’s only a matter of time before this facility becomes available for passengers‚ along with the use of mobile devices in flight.

Some airlines have introduced tablet-like devices which viewers can pull out to hold in their hands‚ however this is mostly restricted to first class and business class; economy passengers continue to have the systems fit into the headrests of the seat in front.

These changes to IFEs are not inconsequential‚ but when compared to the choice and customisation of entertainment available to users on their personal tablets and smartphones‚ they still have a long way to go if they will ever match up.

A Personal Travel Experience

Many passengers favour a single airline for their travel needs‚ as it gives them confidence and comfort to choose an airline they have previous experience with. Airline loyalty programmes go some way in shaping the travel preferences of customers‚ ensuring passengers continue to fly with their airline over others. However‚ in reality‚ airlines do very little to build brand loyalty and trust amongst consumers. 

Airlines have the potential to significantly improve the in-flight entertainment experience‚ by personalising their systems for individual users. By enabling users to log in using an account number‚ the IFE could access passenger information from details provided at the time of purchasing the ticket‚ and any previous journeys. This information could then be used to make specific channels (both audio and video) available to the customer‚ based on their previous usage and preferences.

What’s more‚ the inflight system could also enable customers to order their drinks‚ meals and any other special requirements‚ without requesting the flight attendant. This would make the lives of stewards and stewardesses much easier; they only need to visit passengers’ seats once‚ saving them time whilst reducing disturbance to passengers who are sleeping.

Some airlines also give customers the option to purchase in-flight goods during their journey‚ and make donations to various charity organisations. It would make sense for customers to be able to view and order these items on their touchscreen. They could also pay for the items electronically‚ and choose to either pick up the item at the end of the flight‚ or have it delivered to their preferred address.

Onwards and Upwards for IFEs

All of these changes are possible in the not too distant future – it’s simply the logical evolution of in-flight entertainment systems. The next generation of IFEs could even allow customers to stream entertainment from these systems‚ onto their own devices‚ to take in-flight entertainment to the next level. However‚ one thing’s for sure‚ travel entertainment is set to experience rapid change over the coming years. 

Want to share your thoughts on the direction of in-flight entertainment systems? Tweet us at @hedgehoglab – we’d love to hear your ideas!