The future of in-flight entertainment in an iPad age

The guy in charge of Virgin America's seat-back software talks to CNET about why he doesn't think the popularity of the iPad means airlines should scale back their entertainment spending.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

During the past decade, airlines have been keeping passengers' eyes focused on the seat backs in front of them, filling in-flight entertainment systems up with satellite TV, real-time maps, and movies on demand. But does the proliferation of devices like the iPad mean people will stop paying attention?

It's a particularly compelling question for Virgin America, which runs an in-flight entertainment system called Red that's inarguably the fanciest out of any U.S. airline. Virgin is still on its way to profitability--it recently posted a first-quarter loss of $35.5 million, narrower than last year's--and while trying to keep fares low it has continued to invest in edgy niches of the travel business like in-flight Wi-Fi and power outlets at every seat. (It hasn't been conclusively proven, for example, that the availability of Wi-Fi, especially if it isn't free, is a deciding factor in choosing an airline.)

Conveniently, sitting two rows behind me on Tuesday's inaugural Virgin America flight to Toronto was somebody who could offer the company's perspective: James Weatherson, in-flight entertainment engineer.

"At least in the Americas, we're pretty far ahead," he said of Red, which offers on-demand movies, TV channels, video games, streaming music, and touch-screen food and drink ordering as well as a gimmick that lets you message any other passenger on the plane. "Obviously, not everyone will carry a device, but even for the people who do, it's sort of like a passive entertainment, you don't have to get something out, you don't have to worry about plugging it in, (and) it's just right there in front of you. There's a lot of people who just watch ESPN Classic or whatever's on because it's on and they don't have to think about it. It's a nice way to kind of disconnect."

OK, that's a decent argument, but there's no way that any in-flight movie and game selection could compete with Apple's digital mega-mall. And one Australian airline has even started iPad rentals because of their potential in-flight appeal. So it's interesting that some of the areas that Weatherson said are getting improved soon on Red are the ones that are less likely to be found on a portable device brought on-board--live television, the Google Maps flight tracker, and the "store" (which currently sells food, drinks, and offers an array of donation options like purchasing carbon credits to offset a flight).

"Our Google Maps we're going to update to go to the terrain view versus just the basic map view, which I think is more applicable when you're at 35,000 feet so that you can see mountain ranges and rivers and things like that," Weatherson explained. "There's some more cool features coming to the store. Basically a lot of those upgrades are actually not customer-facing as far as new features but a lot of stability improvements. We're expecting about a 50 percent increase in satellite TV stability. We actually found some issues with the dynamics of the antenna, and we're hoping to clean that up."

Weatherson has been at Virgin for about a year and a half. Previously, he'd worked at Panasonic Avionics, the company that built the in-flight entertainment system, so he's been working on Red since "day one" and noted that the death of in-flight entertainment has been predicted many times before with the advent of portable gaming systems and music players. And, he says, he's been watching the iPad's ascent.

"We're looking at that, definitely closely, and actually tailoring maybe our next system to be a little bit lighter, a little bit less costly."