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January 17, 2014

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us: In-Flight Multimedia Keeps Us Quiet

EMRIES Corporation, a global manufacturer of electronic devices and communication equipment for the defense and aerospace sectors, just announced a $1.4 million order for subsystems to be used in in-flight entertainment systems equipment. The order came from a British manufacturer of In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity (IFE&C) systems, a growing market as airlines compete for traveler dollars.

This month is the 100th anniversary of the first commercial flight, but the last ten years have changed aviation more than almost any other decade, at least in America. US carriers have lost more than $60 billion since the September 11th attacks, when air travel was suspended for two days and thousands of flights cancelled. Passenger levels dipped further when the recession hit, just as skyrocketing oil prices pushed fares higher. This combination of belt tightening measures at the airlines, increased security, high fares and full planes have made air travel a drudge rather than the elite and fun experience it was once. But airlines are learning that one way to lure us back is to entertain us.

Technically in-flight entertainment technology should be called in-flight multimedia technology, as not only can it be used to watch Law & Order but it can also be used to do work, read emails or conduct online research. Regardless, expanding the array of multimedia options has become a real part of airline growth strategy, even while they shrink seats and take away legroom. It’s much easier to ignore the cramped quarters when you can flip channels on your personal seatback video-on-demand screen and post complaints about your seatmates on Facebook. Upgrades are also being made to in-flight Internet access to increase the ability to stream video onboard; right now video streaming is very difficult and just a few passengers trying to do so will bog down the system.

In truth the ability to add these services to planes has existed for years, but adding any new system to an aircraft, especially older aircraft, can be dangerous. The complex wiring for entertainment and communications systems can present a fire hazard, and any new equipment impacts storage and weight calculations. This is why improvements are happening now as airlines, starting to recuperate, are purchasing new aircraft and refurbishing old ones.

The systems designed by EMRIES are capable of offering satellite TV, broadband Wifi, and the currently controversial GSM capability that would allow in-flight cell calls. The question of whether to allow calls in-flight is being debated by the FCC right now while the FAA runs its own tests on viability and safety. It’s important to note that even if the FCC allows in-flight calls, it will still be up to individual airlines to decide whether to implement the feature. It could be a real delineator for which airlines will own the business travel market, since more people may need the feature while traveling for work. American travelers are overwhelmingly against the idea, horrified by the thought of being cramped between a chattering teen and a blustering executive. Interestingly enough, more than 20 international airlines currently allow in-flight calls and texting and have reported few issues.

This may be one time when Americans decide more is not better and are content with silence. 

Edited by Blaise McNamee

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