Entertainment firms woo airlines

Customized movie, music, Web access proffered as means to build customer loyalty

Plugged In

September 21, 2006|By Glenn Singer | Glenn Singer,South Florida Sun-Sentinal

In the future, airline passengers will be able to select movies in advance and download iPod playlists directly to the seats they select online. And when their flights take off, they will get e-mail and instant messaging access - once the carriers find a way to buy those services at low cost.

Meals may be passe on many flights, but not entertainment. In the highly competitive airline industry, the company that provides the best customized entertainment is the one that will generate the most loyalty, industry experts say.

"The technology to do amazing things is available now. In some cases, costs are a major factor. In others, it's just a matter of having the airlines decide what they want," said Michael Rogerson of Intheairnet LLC, an Irvine, Calif., firm that has installed in-flight entertainment systems on more than 400 Delta Air Lines planes.

Rogerson's company was among the many showing their wares at the World Aviation Entertainment Association Convention last week in Miami Beach, Fla. The exhibit floor featured content providers, motion picture producers and distributors, wireless communications manufacturers, software and hardware makers and cabin amenity suppliers.

E! Networks and HBO were there, seeking the airlines' entertainment dollars. So were CNN, PBS, NBC Universal, Sony Pictures Releasing, Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Distributing. So were companies that sell customized amenity kits, earphones, dinnerware, airsickness bags and a variety of other products the airlines buy in huge quantities.

While providing entertainment is a priority for airlines, offering access to the World Wide Web is not for the moment. Just last month, Boeing Co. said it would shut its Connexion unit, which allowed airlines to provide high-speed Internet service to passengers via satellite.

The idea looked like a potential winner before the dot-com meltdown a few years ago. A handful of major U.S. airlines signed up for the service, which cost about $500,000 to install on one aircraft. But then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which hurt business for years, and those airlines canceled their contracts.

Pricing for service wasn't attractive, either. For the few international carriers that purchased the service, Boeing was charging passengers up to $30 on longer international flights.

Two other firms, AirCell and LiveTV, both of which had booths at the airline entertainment convention, might fill the void left by Boeing. Both are working on in-flight Internet offerings after winning licenses in June to operate air-to-ground communications services.

For the present, LiveTV of Melbourne, Fla., is focusing on another gap in domestic service - providing television and radio programming on short-haul routes aboard narrow-bodied aircraft such as the MD-80 and Boeing 737. Many of these planes have no in-flight entertainment.

LiveTV, which was spun off from Harris Corp. and sold to JetBlue Airways, provides 35 channels of DirecTV programming and about 110 channels of XM Radio delivered by satellite. In addition to JetBlue, other customers include AirTran, Frontier Airlines and Virgin Blue in Australia and New Zealand.

"The goal is to make people feel at home when they are in the air. Television and radio are alive and well and extremely popular on short-haul flights," said Scott Easterling, LiveTV's director of sales and marketing.

Glenn Singer writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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