Future planes will continue to offer better integration with media players and high-speed Internet access, but developing those features is a major pain, according to an Airbus executive.
"It's the bugbear of all airlines," Bob Lange, head of cabin marketing for Airbus, said during a presentation at the Business Travel Show in London.
Airbus and Boeing, which dominate the plane manufacturing market, have both placed increasing emphasis on in-seat technology options like entertainment, laptop power and Internet access. According to Lange, they don't have much choice. "Knowledgeable travellers are not just comparing airlines with each other, they're judging what they get on the airlines with what they get in the rest of their life."
For airlines, offering (and charging for) entertainment options also provides a potential means of charging passengers with extra services without raising basic fares. Virgin Blue (which offers live pay TV) and Jetstar (which rents DVD players) have already delved into that market.
More complex solutions will follow, many focusing on integrating with devices like phones and PCs which people are already carrying. "We are more convinced in the future that passengers will be bringing their own content with them," Lange said. "Passengers will be expecting the same usage comfort as they get at home." Singapore Airlines debuted such a service for iPods
earlier this year.
However, building that into aircraft isn't easy. One problem is that producing on-demand entertainment, allowing integration of iPods and other players and ensuring stable Net browsing requires considerable computing power.
"As in flight entertainment increases, there's essentially a PC in every seat," Lange said. "That space has to be found somewhere. Originally it was under seats."
Those constraints should be reduced in future generations thanks to shrinking technology footprints and better air distribution. "In the fourth generation of in-flight entertainment coming along in the A350 in 2015, we'll have eliminated that [issue] completely," Lange said.
Those challenges also have caused delays in adding new features to aircraft. Despite hyping Internet access
as a feature of its A380 fleet, Qantas is yet to roll that feature out
Airbus has experienced a fair number of delays with the A380 since first announcing it in 2000. However, Lange said that buyer-supplied cabin equipment such as in-flight entertainment systems -- which airlines often want to design themselves to ensure maximum differentiation from rivals -- could further exacerbate delays if it was not delivered on schedule.
The other seemingly inevitable change is the introduction of mobile calling on planes, which Lange freely admits has caused controversy: "Voice communication in aircraft is a highly charged subject." However, getting that tech on board has advantages even if you want to throttle Mrs I'm-On-The-plane in the next seat. "All the GSM technology is also providing email and SMS, which we see as being the killer apps. We don't think we're at the end of the story yet."
Finally, here's a scary thought: an Airbus A380 with nothing but economy-class seats could seat 840 people. That's one nasty customs queue, so you'd want to make sure your iPod battery doesn't run out during the flight.