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Although not new, in-flight WiFi has certainly gone from frivolous gimmick to competitive necessity in less than a decade. I remember when in-flight speeds were just sufficient enough to let you know the connection wasn’t working.

For some, WiFi is an almost lamentable addition to an aircraft: time in flight used to be a mandatory disconnect period – a sort of enforced digital detox – and this newfound connectivity is certainly going some way to removing this period of respite.

Without looking at everything as a potential consequence of this nouveau connectivity, its important to look at what it doesn’t constitute. Assuming flights will remain call-free-zones (and that airlines rigorously enforce this policy) I, like most, believe the benefits far outweigh the personal “costs” of in-flight internet. Airlines are busy bolstering their Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and streaming apps of In-Flight Entertainment (IFE). More importantly, they need to bolster the existing IFE that is literally right in front of their faces.

Passenger expectations are now being set outside of the airline’s industry.

Passenger expectations are now being set outside of the airline’s environment. With each new advance achieved in the speed, quality and stability of in-flight WiFi, customers are regaining the previously “dead time” whilst airborne, and their demands are going to grow increasingly sophisticated to match those on the ground. Passengers no longer accept the demotion of their creature comforts or needs as a mere inevitability of flying.

What is misguided is the almost enthusiastic proclamation by industry observers of the imminent demise of the IFE seatback screen, BYOD having heralded a new era of hardware-free content consumption in the air. I disagree, although is not to dispute the incredible revolution being thrust upon the aviation and transport industry, and the enormous changes and opportunities incumbent with it.

Existing IFE systems are going to become legacy sooner rather than later.

Add-on, augmented services of the likes of BYOD streaming, messaging and browsing are already in wide use amongst market leaders, and are proving wildly popular with the travelling consumer. The wider implications of aviation’s belated immersion into the connected ecosystem – becoming end-to-end travel administrators – are only just being toyed with. It is in this context that I advocate an intelligent application of BYOD in parallel with the existing screens – connected devices and In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) are not consuming time spent on IFE – its eating our free time.

None of this is to say BYOD in the sky is not worth being embraced. The contrary is true: 87% of consumers are using another device whilst watching content. Large, fixed screen devices remain the undisputed preferred mode of accessing and consuming content over their mobile-like cousins (38% versus 16% respectively), with smartphone- and tablet-sized devices playing a truly supporting role. In the in-air context, the benefit of BYOD lay in its ability to augment the existing IFE experience, fulfilling the role of the companion device as they so frequently fill on the ground.


Singapore Airlines’ new “Companion App” creates a two-screen ecosystem for the passenger. Credit: Singapore Airlines

However, this shift is not going towards BYOD domination or primacy.

Delivering accurately on the sophisticated demands of the modern traveller requires an acknowledgement of the in-air realities faced by the bulk of jet-setting consumers, and delivering according to those parameters. With roughly 80% of air passengers travelling in Economy Class, serious consideration should be afforded to the practicalities of any new technology deployment – with the average economy class seat commanding no more than 32 inches in pitch, and 18 inches in width (and with these numbers on the steady decline), very little of the passenger’s limited real estate can be given over to a hand-held or tray-held device for so much as a medium-duration flight. This is not to explore the aesthetic impact and alteration to the cabin ambience the potentially hundreds of non-dimmed screens could have – shades, anybody?

There is enduring preference for in-built IFE on long-haul flights (and average flight times are increasing as airlines move more and more towards point-to-point networks – something for another post), despite the increased demand for inflight internet. The problem is not IFC-enabled BYOD being a preferred mode of content consumption during flight, but the IFE content itself becoming instantly obsolete if it operates in isolation from the connected world.

Consumers are regaining control over the previously inaccessible, throw-away “dead time” spent in flight, and a future featuring the connected traveller begs a myriad of new business strategies to satisfy this digital sophistication – just don’t throw out the best tool you’ve got.

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Posted by Tom

Tom is a consultant and founder of, the online travel tool that rates, ranks and dissects every facet of in-flight passenger experience. All views expressed are his own.

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