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Today, many large commercial aircraft have full-fledged entertainment systems, sometimes going as far as putting a personal LED screen in every seat.

Let's just consider the costs of this for a moment:

• weight of the devices and their wiring

• power and waste heat

• cost of designing and approving the system with the FAA

There may be more I missed.

So now let's consider that today, most people (and certainly most people who can afford to fly) have a smart phone of some kind. They will most definitely bring it with them on the flight. And most people will also bring the charger and headphones (or earbuds) with them.

So you can see where this is going. If the airliner wants to provide movies or music, why not just have a jack (USB?) at every seat to plug in your smart phone and get it that way? Or possibly even provide streaming Wifi once in the air (not a true connection to the internet at large, but just as a way to distribute the movies/music). There might still be bandwidth challenges, but surely, surely this is better than a traditional IFE system as it exists today.

Am I missing something?

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Just for reference, Swissair Flight 111 crashed due to a fire associated with the IFE system. – Ron Beyer Jan 19 at 2:37
    
@RonBeyer I didn't wanna mention it because of the large role the mylar insulation played in the fire. To me, the fact that IFESs are so heavy and add a wiring nightmare to the plane is enough to question them in light of ubiquitous smart phones. – DrZ214 Jan 19 at 2:59
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Have you considered the fact that an IFE system on a plane today was most likely ordered and installed several years ago? Smartphones haven't been "ubiquitous" for that long. – Nate Eldredge Jan 19 at 3:30
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Nate is very correct. Android is only 7 years old; iOS is 8. Many people still don't have, need, or want smartphones. I'm not one of those people, but they do exist. – reirab Jan 19 at 5:39
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I don't have a smartphone...Anyway I'd rather read a book on the plane. – Bakuriu Jan 19 at 9:02

Here are some points to consider:

  • The screen size is a huge part of the experience. People with smartphones mostly still view content on a large regular screen when they are home or at a hotel etc. Hence, given a choice a passenger is always going to prefer the larger screen you can pack into the seat back than the relatively smaller smartphone display.

  • If you can be sure every seat has an IFE screen you can use it for other purposes like mandatory safety announcements & videos. Unless you can be sure there's no seat without a smartphone owner depending on them for such messages is hard

  • If you have an existing aircraft the cost & effort to modify it & recertify the changed config. isn't worth it

  • Smartphones have only become ubiquitous in the last 5 years.

  • Average fleet age is much more than that. A typical aircraft you fly on might have been built 10, 15 or even 20 years before today.

  • Manufacturing date is not as important as the design date: If you are flying even in a 5 year old aircraft but the design was made 20 years ago there's no chance the designer could even forsee the smartphone revolution so he put in the IFE.

  • New designs you can expect modifications e.g. Many recent aircraft have a local USB port you mention & allow the passenger to plug in his device & view his own movies or listen to his own music on the IFE screen. http://www.turkishairlines.com/en-int/travel-information/frequently-asked-questions/on-board/in-flight-entertainment

Connections enabling passengers to listen to, or watch on their individual screens, content on their personal iPods or USB devices are available on B777 and some of our A330 aircraft.

  • The power and waste heat tradeoff of smartphones vs dedicated IFE isn't clear: If you encourage IFE via smartphones you would need to provide charging capacity for simultaneous plug in of hundreds of phones. The electrical resources for that aren't insignificant.

  • The devil you know is better than the one you don't: Dedicated IFE is tested & certified with well known characteristics. Having hundreds of unknown chargers plugged in & batteries charging adds other variables to the game. You'd also have to support multiple OSs, screen sizes etc. on the software side.

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+1 for the fact smartphones have only been ubiquitous for around 5 years. Even though phones are now common, not everyone uses them for entertainment. Particularly the elder generation still only use phones for phone calls. Even if it were the case, it still takes time for airlines to refit cabins with newer entertainment systems, which is normally only done when it absolutely has to be done. – Gavin Coates Jan 19 at 12:25

Some airlines (I've personally experienced Delta and United) use PDE (Personal Device Entertainment), where the passenger can download an app prior to their flight and entertainment/flight information can be streamed to their personal devices. You primarily see this on domestic flights, though some international flights do use this (i think more common on older airplanes).

Pros:

  • Less weight & cost per seat (no need for screens, power, mounting, remotes, etc.)
  • much cheaper 'upgrade' cost. Instead of upgrading every seat when things are outdated, you update the central server.

Cons:

  • Very hard to use the screen while eating, which in my personal experience is one of the peak times where everyone uses entertainment. Your personal device takes up tray table space, and no room for food tray.
  • placing your device on the tray table cranes you neck in a sometimes uncomfortable position. Bad for ergonomics. (especially when passenger in front is reclined.
  • Requires a download BEFORE the flight. In my experience, you're notified of this via email, which i'm sure many people don't read. I've heard countless stories of passengers finding out the hard way...they get on board only to find out you need to download the app, which requires an internet connection...which requires you to pay to access.
  • Supply for customers who don't have tablets/phones.
  • Now you need AC power to each seat to charge said personal devices. What if you're on a 18hr flight. I'm 99% sure most devices cannot last that long streaming video.

Based on the market and the flight, you can see that the carriers choose built-in screens or BYOD. Shorter flights may make more sense to have them bring their own device. On long int'l flights, you're aiming for in-seat IFEs to make the journey more comfortable.

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+ for your personal experience, and you are right that most devices will not last 18 hours streaming video. However, to fix that, a simple USB jack or even traditional power outlet per seat will be enough. I am 99% certain that this will cost less electric power than a larger screen per seat. Also, based on the market and the flight, I cannot see that the carriers choose built-in screens or BYOD. We haven't even calculated how much fuel is lost to the weight of of the IFE, which will be greater on longer flights. – DrZ214 Jan 19 at 1:08
    
Also, I wanted to say that the carriers are being very stupid to require to download their app before boarding. It is not that hard to setup local wifi on the plane with a local server that can distribute the app, and will weigh much much less than a traditional IFE! – DrZ214 Jan 19 at 1:09
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@DrZ214: It feels like you're not really thinking this through. For example, iOS cannot install an arbitrary app from an arbitrary server like Android can with side-loading. – Greg Hewgill Jan 19 at 1:19
    
@GregHewgill Of course not, but for a large airline, getting a free app signed on the app store is a piece of cake. Now arbitrary server, like wifi on a plane already in the air, i'm not so sure about. Worst case, just use web pages with embedded content---streaming media, interactive java apps that show flight data, etc. – DrZ214 Jan 19 at 1:46
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@DrZ214 "I am 99% certain that this will cost less electric power than a larger screen per seat." I'm not so certain. You'd be surprised how much power some smartphones, let alone tablets, can pull down. And that's to say nothing of the pax who use a laptop with a 150W charger. The IFE is probably in the neighborhood of 0.5 to 1 W for the SOM and a few W for the screen (at most.) Remember that phones are not only powering their screen when plugged in, they're also charging their batteries. Granted, that's actually a very useful feature and many airlines offer it intentionally. – reirab Jan 19 at 5:33

Today's IFE systems aren't solely about entertainment media. They might also show flight status, let your order meals, offer flight-specific destination information, etc. Now none of this is impossible to do with, say, a local WiFi network and a local web server. However:

  • The typical IFE screen is larger than a smartphone, which is easier for viewing movies
  • You don't have to hold the screen if it's mounted in the seat in front
  • Flight crew would need to be trained in at least basic troubleshooting of passenger devices
  • An alternative would still need to be provided for passengers who did not have a suitable device
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I cant agree with everything you said. Yes, IFE screen is larger, and yes, you would have to hold your phone. Is this really that big a deal? Most users are used to watching youtube on their phone. The #1 selling point for flights is not what entertainment they offer, but ticket cost. We have not even gotten into extra fuel costs of the IFE, but IIRC most weigh 3000 lb or more. Finally consider that many IFE content are not even complimentary. The passenger has to pay if he wants it. So most don't, and so the idea of this 3,000 lb IFE flying around on every flight gets real dumb real fast. – DrZ214 Jan 19 at 1:53
    
@DrZ214 " IIRC most weigh 3000 lb or more" That sounds extremely unlikely to me (as one who designs embedded systems not dissimilar to IFEs professionally,) at least for narrow-body aircraft. That doesn't even sound probable on a 400 passenger aircraft (unless it's one of the ones that had HDTVs and such in luxury First.) For a 150 pax aircraft, that would be 20 lb/pax. I'd guess most of the systems I've seen don't weigh more than 2 lb/pax. – reirab Jan 19 at 5:27
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@DrZ214: It might be different around where you live, but the people that are around me are only watching full videos on their smartphones if there is no other choice and they are bored by other stuff. The occasional cat video, yes, but not full movies. They prefer larger screens that they don't have to squeeze their eyes to see anything (yes, a lot of those people that I know don't have perfect eyes). Also I never looked/asked for that but I doubt that many people will want to hold their phone for many many hours. – PlasmaHH Jan 19 at 8:44
    
@reirab I might be recalling dated information, possibly even having to do with an IFE that used CRTs every 6 rows or something like that. But who knows, maybe 10 years ago flat screens were 4x as heavy as today? These days (2016) flat screens can be much lighter. But as a few commenters have pointed it, we still have IFEs from planes 5, 10, even 15 or 20 years ago flying around today. – DrZ214 Jan 19 at 14:51

From my perspective using a smartphone/tablet has a few issues.

  • Usually when traveling I like to be able to communicate, which means my smartphone is off-limits when it comes to playing games/watching movies so I can save my battery in case I have issues at one of my connections or my destination. (Power outlets at airports are like gold, although they are becoming more common). Its a possibility to provide charging for devices in the aircraft but look at the issues associated with that, perhaps somebody plugs in a high load device, or an overheating charger, etc. If the system is approved, it should be safe, BYOD is giving up that approval process and trusting your fellow passengers that their equipment is in good working order. How many people have had iPhones blow up in their pockets or on chargers?

  • Even if I could use my smartphone, the issue becomes proping it up on the tray and getting a major neck-ache from looking down at it, along with eye-strain from watching a 5.7" screen (which is huge by todays standards).

  • For a tablet, it requires me to also prop it up somehow and stare at it, while the screen is typically larger than the IFE system, its still not ergonomic. I much prefer watching something on the back of the seat where I don't have to look down.

  • All that being said, I still have to download the movies I want to watch and store them on my device, which I really have better things to do with the space they take up. Its nice being able to choose from a list of channels (like Uniteds DirectTV service) or a good list of movies.

  • Some airlines (I know United does this) have movies available to watch that are not out for purchase or home use yet. Sometimes I get to catch movies in that space where they aren't in the theater anymore but still not out for purchase.

So personally coming from somebody who flies commercially quite a bit, I prefer the IFE over my smartphone/tablet. Its nice being able to lean my head back and watch the video. If the airline ever lets us mount our smart device on the back of the seat ahead of us I may change my opinion, but right now I don't think they would take too kindly to that.

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a few questions/points: 1. How many people have had iPhones blow up in their pockets or on chargers? Are you being facetious? I know no one who's had that happen. If you're serious, slow charging is safer (e.g., connecting phone's usb to computer). 2. Doesn't every modern smart phone have a kickstand (optional accessory u can buy) to prop it up at any angle? 3. The problem of downloading a huge movie is side-stepped with streaming. Streaming only buffers/caches one portion at a time, which is continually overwritten by the next portion. 4. United could still do that under a streaming system. – DrZ214 Jan 19 at 2:56
    
2. no, it doesn't – Vladimir F Jan 19 at 9:12
    
1. No, I'm not being facetious, and its a battery issue not a charging one, although it seems to be mostly resolved as of late. 2. No, but regardless of the angle, it still has to be placed on the tray requiring you to look down at it. 3/4. Streaming has some DMCA/DRM issues that may not allow the carrier to stream them, especially with pre-releases. – Ron Beyer Jan 19 at 14:25
    
Also, regarding #1 of your question, some phones/tablets won't "slow-charge", my Nexus 6P won't charge without its 3A charger (which is USB-C, not A/B), and my Samsung Tab Pro 8.4 won't charge with less than 2.5A (outside of the USB A/B spec). – Ron Beyer Jan 19 at 14:33
    
Also, getting the content onto your device in the first place can be hard, especially when travelling abroad. For 2x5 hours flights, + 2x3 hour train journeys that's 16 hours worth of content you'd want to pre-download onto your device - and due to geo-blocking you'd need to do this before leaving your home country - assuming your preferred service offers downloading (e.g. nothing from My5, YouTube or Netflix). And even when flying on an airline like Thomas Cook with at seat USB charging points - after a long delay you might end up on an older aircraft with no charging point & a flat battery – Kev Feb 27 at 20:38

The real answer is in @curious_cat 's answer but it needs to be emphasized:

it's the safety videos.

Per FAA Advisory Circular 121-24C:

The pretakeoff oral briefing may be given by audiotape or videotape means. This method of passenger briefing should be considered when the aircraft is equipped with the necessary videotape and sound equipment. The advantage of audiotape or videotape presentations is the assurance that a complete briefing is given, that the diction is good, and that an overall high quality briefing is maintained. Tape presentations also lend themselves very well to a multilingual presentation. In addition, a videotape presentation can include “signing” for the deaf and other visual presentations, which may be more meaningful to passengers.

There you have it. Showing a videotaped safety demo ensures the FAA won't fine you to oblivion because some passenger filed a complaint that the demo was not satisfactory. Believe me, airlines do not want to cross the FAA.

Advertisment and movies are gravy. It just means some of the costs you can chalk up to marketing. Good for you.

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The FAA is being a bit near-sighted here, but a careful reading shows they allow this: recorded audio presentations can serve this purpose and retain most benefits, including good diction. All large commercial planes have speakers so audio can reach everyone. Just a real-life example here: my local library has not figured this out either. Every evening, some poor sap dictates word-4-word the same closing announcements as the night before. Well almost word-4-word. Recording and playing back the audio would eliminate the stutters, slips, & hesitations. Talk about bureaucracy vs business! – DrZ214 Jan 19 at 5:24
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@DrZ214 Recording the closing announcements at your local library would require staff time, knowledge of audio recording, recording equipment, playback equipment, and staff to trigger the recordings. It's not clear to me that this is really easier than just making a nightly PA announcement. – Zach Lipton Jan 19 at 13:24
    
@ZachLipton You seem to be thinking of a very analogue solution such as a sound studio. These days, all you need is a computer and a program like audacity. It would not take any more time to hit the record button while the announcer makes his announcement, which he was gonna do that night anyway. It does not take much time to save the file then set up a program to automatically play it back at fixed times each day either. – DrZ214 Jan 23 at 18:22

Consider an entirely different perspective - airlines are forever trying to differentiate their products and the in-flight entertainment is one area that airlines tend to compete or display their edge.

Many airlines specifically advertise the features of their entertainment systems as part of the perks of flying the airline - as technology becomes more ubiquitous and embedded, I can only see more innovation in this area - rather than the reverse of removing the option completely.

Practically speaking; there are some other concerns with the BYOD concept:

  1. You cannot get airline-customized information on your personal device - for example, the outside camera views on Emirate aircraft or the cockpit radio transmissions that you can tune into on some United flights. I am sure it would be possible to do this, but the hassle of supporting a large sea of various devices is not worth it in the long term.

  2. As mentioned by others, there is a safety concern here. Any equipment has to be certified and it may be difficult to get all cellphone manufacturers to agree to a standard to be compatible with all the various aircraft and seat configurations. In addition they are required to provide a uniform experience when safety videos are shown.

  3. Personal technology moves at a faster pace and is subject to different controls and regulations than aircraft and airlines. It would be very expensive for airlines to make sure the seats on their aircraft are compatible with all the various types, configurations, screen sizes, power requirements for personal entertainment devices. Aircraft also have a longer service life than personal electronic devices.

Although airlines are starting to integrate personal devices into their infotainment systems - those screens are there to stay for the long term and will only get more integral to the flight experience.

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