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Published: Thursday, 7/28/2011

Airlines test entertainment tech

Plan is to stream movies to fliers' smartphones, tablets


CHICAGO -- Airlines are experimenting with new ways to deliver on-demand entertainment to fliers who want to stay connected while they're in the air, aided by a new generation of mobile devices and in-flight entertainment providers.

At the Itasca, Ill., headquarters of in-flight Wi-Fi provider Gogo, President and Chief Executive Michael Small says the traditional viewing systems built into airline cabins and seat backs won't last forever. It's expensive hardware for airlines in a world where many passengers are already carrying their own entertainment devices.

The transition from traditional entertainment systems will take a "long time," Mr. Small acknowledged, but "eventually, this is all going to move to customers' devices."

Gogo, whose in-air broadband system is installed in more than 6,000 aircraft, is turning its attention beyond mere Wi-Fi connectivity. The company is partnering with American Airlines to test a new video streaming product that allows consumers to rent movies onboard and watch them on their own smartphones or tablet computers.

Content is streamed from a server that sits on the aircraft, but the rental remains available on the user's device for 24 hours. That means viewers can start a movie during the flight and finish it after the plane lands.

This month, the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project said 35 percent of American adults own a smartphone. Tablets are also gaining momentum, with Apple selling 9.25 million in the most recent quarter.

Translating these trends in connectivity and consumer demand to 30,000 feet, however, is a complex matter for the airline industry, which faces technological and economic hurdles. But keeping some kind of in-flight entertainment offering remains important to airlines as a revenue source and a way to keep passengers occupied on flights.

American Airlines, in addition to its test of the Gogo video streaming service, will also be handing out Samsung Galaxy Tab devices on premium cabins on certain transcontinental and international flights later this year. The tablets, which run on Google's Android operating system, were customized with additional memory and other features so they could replace the current in-flight entertainment system.

Rob Friedman, American's vice president of marketing, said the company believes both options "are really necessary" to cover a variety of customer needs.

"It really is all about choice, options and control," Mr. Friedman said. "An individual customer on a business trip might be bringing their own wireless device, but maybe when they're traveling for leisure ... they'd rather use one that we supply."

Wi-Fi connectivity has proved popular among consumers when offered. Mr. Friedman said the number of wireless sessions initiated on American flights rose 30 percent from January to June.

But some industry officials doubt that consumers are willing to make the leap from checking email on a smartphone to paying for a feature-length movie on the same device. Moreover, relying on fliers' personal devices for entertainment content means the experience could vary widely, depending on screen size, battery life, and the quality of the connection.

"I can't tell you the amount of times I've been on a flight where people don't even know how to turn on the Wi-Fi on their laptop," said Dan Rayburn, principal analyst in Frost&Sullivan's digital media group.

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