As airline competition heats up, modern carriers are expanding their entertainment systems, with personal TV screens and a film selection to rival leading cinemas.
When in-flight entertainment was first established, passengers came to expect a limited choice and a small overhead television screen. Since then many airlines have introduced state-of-the-art personal systems with a vast array of new Hollywood films, TV and music programmes.
"We first brought in televisions on every seat back in 1992," says Patrick Brannelly, Emirates' vice president of in-flight entertainment. Originally a small choice of films and TV programmes were shown at set times on different channels.
"Then in 1996 when we introduced the 777 to our fleet we increased our channel numbers to 18. When we introduced the A330 we put video player into first and business class as well so those passengers could have a bit more control over what they watched," he adds.
But the big change came in 2003 when Dubai's national carrier introduced the famous ICE system, enabling every passenger to select their own entertainment. "This brought in the concept of immense choice," explains Brannelly.
"It was really important on long-haul flights, like non stop to Sydney or New York. People would be flying for such long periods of time we needed to increase the choice." According to the entertainment vice president, content is changed regularly so even frequent flyers can access new entertainment. "There's about 12-14 new Hollywood movies released each month so we usually take all of those. In total about 15-25% of content is changed each month."
Brannelly admits the legacy system is outdated, saying: "For people who were watching the set time movies they had to tune in at the right times. For people who've nodded off or gone to the bathroom they missed part of the film and had to just put up with that." At present, around three quarters of the airline's fleet are equipped with the ICE system, while the remainder will be updated in the coming years.
In terms of choice, Emirates offers a vast range of films, music and television programmes, ranging from the latest Hollywood blockbusters to BBC documentaries. As a family airline based in the Middle East, Emirates' management is aware it needs to upload suitable, non offensive content.
"Typically film makers create different versions of the movies, one for theatrical release and one that takes away any excessive violence, swearing or blasphemy- softening it a bit," explains Brannelly. "People will say movies have been chopped to bits by an airline but we've never cut a film. The experts in Hollywood re record certain parts of the movie for TV use."
He adds that although there is plenty of adult themed content on the systems, much of it would be uninteresting to children rather than offensive.
Etihad Airways, which also operates an on demand video service, is equally sensitive to the type of content uploaded. Albert de Wet, in-flight entertainment manager for Etihad Airways, says: "We do take care not to offend- nudity, bad language and violence are all things we're aware of."
However, the airline will soon be introducing a parental lock which de Wet believes will give them more flexibility over content. "Having said that a lot of the movies we carry which are quite adult, for example English literature, would just not appeal to children but wouldn't be offensive," he adds.
All Emirates aircraft have email and SMS on the seat so you can swipe your credit card and send an email to anyone in the world and get a reply.
The Abu Dhabi based carrier currently has some 78 films and 40 hours of TV programmes in its repertoire. "When we started the airline [four years ago] we only had a small selection," de Wet says.
"But in June 2006 we went through our first major content upgrade and basically doubled it to what you see now," he adds. Like Emirates, Etihad has installed the on demand' service on most of its fleet, and the remaining few aircraft should be equipped by the end of this year.
Aside from films, music and television both Emirates and Etihad offer other interactive services such as high-tech sky maps. "Passengers can choose the kind of map they want to see," says de Wet.Ã‚Â "For instance they can decide they want to see a day and night view and have a map of the world and say where it's night and where it's day."
In addition the Etihad system offers a location indicator, which offers passengers the chance to track the aircraft's progress in relation to any major city.
Meanwhile the Emirates service offers advanced 3D graphics, text message options and a widescreen. "All aircraft have email and SMS on the seat so you can swipe your credit card and send an email to anyone in the world and get a reply," explains Brannelly. Emirates is also one of the first airline's to offer passengers access to recent news headlines. "At the moment sending data to an aircraft is very expensive so we send the BBC headline news and a short entry paragraph which encapsulates the whole story."
However, as new methods of aircraft communication become available, the carrier plans to enhance this service. Currently, Etihad do not offer news headlines, though de Wet says it's something the airline is keen to initiate.
In addition both airlines are considering the re-introduction of broadband internet for web savvy passengers. "In 2006 we launched our first aircraft with broadband internet connectivity, which at that point was supplied to us by Connection by Boeing," explains de Wet.
"We were about to launch it as an application through the in-flight entertainment where you could fully browse the internet using the in seat monitor, but when the company closed for business we basically lost that service."
The carrier is currently evaluating its options for a replacement service. "Since CBB closed down there's a couple of options on the table and I know that some airlines are looking at it but as of yet no airline has fully installed the broadband system," adds de Wet.
In terms of reliability the technology has developed considerably since its launch. "Going back to 1992 things were very different," says Brannelly.
"These are very complex systems, a lot of cabling, and boxes. They used to be quite unreliable because you were putting a whole load of electrical equipment onboard and bouncing it round the world." However, due to digital enhancements the airline now experiences far fewer technical difficulties.
"Most of the issues today are things like a connector coming undone, or software problems, which can be easy to fix. We're constantly updating software, much the same way as Microsoft." But despite this Brannelly insists the airline will continue to improve and develop the service. "They are much more reliable than a few years ago but I don't think we'll ever be satisfied and rest on our laurels," he adds.
According to de Wet the Etihad systems enjoy 99% reliability and most problems tend to be easily resolved. "The crews have the ability to reset an individual entertainment system which takes about 5 minutes to reboot," he explains.
"If there's a major system failure the only option is to reset the entire system which takes a little bit longer to boot up the entire aircraft. That's usually a last resort. There can be teething problems with new software, often dependent on the aircraft."
Both airlines consider the systems' usability integral to success. "It's very difficult presenting a system that has all this programming on it so we design a system then we test it," explains Brannelly.
Passengers are observed whilst they attempt to use the service and the process is discussed in subsequent interviews. "We film them and look at what they're trying to do. We then talk to them afterwards to find out what they were trying to do and try and iterate the design to something that's as good as possible." And for those who want to avoid high tech complications completely, Emirates has created a simple way for passengers to access programmes.
"What we did with ICE is put all the content on channel numbers. If for example you know Friends is on channel 403 you just type that in to watch Friends," says Brannelly.
Meanwhile Etihad has made things simple by introducing a video favourites' facility, which enables viewers to narrow their choices, enhancing the selection process.
"If they have to scroll through 75 pages of movies they won't remember the ones they liked," points out de Wet. "We've built a feature where guests can add the ones they like to favourites- a bit like a shopping cart. When they click on this at the end of the process they'll have a play list for themselves."