Can the Apple iPad revolutionize the way airlines do business? Hell yeah! (Plus: how you can get a promotion)

This wasn’t just the Easter weekend, it was also the weekend when the iPad hit the stores. Before I could get over the initial frenzy, I saw an article on Mashable that talked about a university buying iPads for all its incoming freshmen! That bold idea got me thinking…does the iPad have the potential of chancing the way airlines do business too?

In fact, there’s been ample debate already, with the queen of in-flight entertainment (IFE), Mary Kirby, concluding that it’s a fad, even as the CIO of JetStar, Stephen Tame was quoted as saying that the iPad “may lead in the future the end of airline in-flight entertainment systems”.

Why does the iPad matter for airlines?

It matters because no longer are mobile devices limited to small screens only centimeters wide, with the iPad. Combine that with the advent of in-flight wifi and we’re talking business.

I’m not talking about every passenger carrying on-board an iPad. That’s probably not possible. At least not very soon, and not across nations. What I’m suggesting is that it might be a good idea for airlines that do not have personal in-flight entertainment systems installed, to consider buying iPads to rent them out to the passengers.

iPad re-defining in-flight entertainment – both for legacy and budget airlines

Imagine sitting in the middle seat of a Boeing 747 for 11 hours from Los Angeles to London, with no personal IFE? Sounds archaic right? But a lot of leading airlines like KLM, Iberia, American and United still do not have personal IFE and I do not foresee them equipping their planes with one, until the new planes arrive. Which is still some years away. Offering the iPad option in these flights can be a competitive advantage for  legacy airlines.

For budget airlines around the world, most of which have a new narrow-body fleet, which is not equipped with IFE. These stand to benefit the most from the iPad. Just buy some, and start renting them out!

Airlines that do this have the potential of skipping a generation of IFE systems, and do away with the installation, wiring and maintainence of these systems. Think about the cost savings from less fuel-burn due to the lack of “installed weight” carried during each take-off and landing. That in itself can amount to millions per year in savings, per plane!

How to keep content fresh for iPad IFEs? Think ancillary!

I know one of the key aspects of IFE is having fresh content. And most airlines with a good IFE system update their content at least once a month now. How does that happen for the iPad?

For starters, I personally think that by the time an airline starts offering iPads to its customers, it would already have its planes wifi-equipped. And then, airlines can offer syndicated content on the iPads over wifi. If this seems to cumbersome, or if it slows down how about allowing passengers to pre-book pen-drives with the latest content? May be they can even customize the content. So when they board the plane, they’re given an iPad along with the pen-drive with their customized content. And all this can drive revenue too.

Budget airlines can have offers to rent the iPad + wifi + power outlet, or iPad + Content on pen-drive, or the whole package. This can range anywhere from $19 for short haul flights, to $49 for long-haul. Legacy carriers can include some of these as freebies for frequent fliers and Premium travelers, and charge for the rest. Makes sense, right?

iPad for check-in!

Another good use for the iPad is for check-in! How about doing away with all the e-check-in kiosks and just having iPads plugged into power outlets, for checking-in passengers? May be roving “queue-busters” can personally approach passengers lining up with iPads, to speed up the process. This is something similar to what Indigo Airlines already does.

If this sounds too far-fetched, then how about just the fact that with the iPad, more passengers will be able to use a mobile boarding pass, and not a paper one.  This is something major airlines like Continental and Lufthansa already do, so the barrier to adoption is reduced.

iPad for the pilots and ground staff

Lastly, another use for the iPads in airlines is behind-the-scenes. As the Tweet from Pluna’s GM below shows, thick manuals can be eliminated from the cockpit and replaced with iPads. This is especially true for airlines that don’t already use e-flightbag in their cockpits. Again, a leap ahead of time. And even the ground-staff can be equipped with iPads, from check-in counters to boarding gates. Eliminating the need for fixed kiosks.

How to get started? (and get a promotion)

Work for an airline? Now that you know of some ideas on how the iPad can help airlines, why don’t you use these to go get a promotion? I’m serious!

If you’re an Apple-lover working for an airline, how about putting a 4 page business plan together, entitled, “How the iPad can help our airline save $XMn and make $Xx Mn, per day!” Just split all the cost-side and the revenue-side aspects discussed above and put some numbers behind them, and present it to you boss and senior management.

It’s not as difficult as it sounds. For example, for the cost-side, figure out how much fuel it takes per additional ton of weight, per flight. Then multiply that by the approximate additional weight of IFE systems and wiring, which can be removed if the iPads come into play. And that’s your cost saving per plane, per take-off and landing. Multiply that by the number of rotations the plane does per day, and wallah – you have your magical number!

If you’re the first to present this plan to your airline, and it gets adopted, don’t you think you’ll be promoted to lead the project? Or at least play a strong role in it?

In conclusion, I don’t think iPad will replace IFE, or kill IFE, but be a strong complement, with a number of airlines just going iPad-only. Frankly, I can’t wait to board the first iPad-ified airline. It will not only be a competitive advantage, but it’ll also be something that makes+saves money, and make that airline the coolest brand in the world.

What do you think? Is the iPad a fad? Or does it have any real potential to challenge traditional IFEs? Let’s here it in the comments and on Twitter (@simpliflying)

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Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying and a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought-leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior aviation executives globally, from Chile to Canada and from Sydney to San Francisco. Shashank's perspectives have found their way into major media outlets, including CNN Travel, CNBC, MSNBC, Bloomberg UTV, Mashable and in leading publications like Airline Business, ATW, Aviation Week, and others. Shashank studied Information Systems Management and Business Management at Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University. Hailing from India, he splits his time between Singapore and Vancouver, among other cities.
Shashank Nigam
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Showing 29 comments
  • oussama

    Possibilities exist, RJ used to provide Business Class passengers DVDs with up to 40 movies on the hard disk before they had IFE installed on their new aircraft, so this is not a new concept.
    The iPad definitely will enable innovations and open up venues in IFE, maybe not with this version, but as the iPad evolves the opportunities are tremendous.
    I am not an IFE expert, but heck I am excited

  • Toms

    I don’t think iPods are the best solution for personalized IFE. airBaltic and other airlines already offer portable IFE gadgets for rent but the service just seems to remind passengers to bring their own laptops, iPhones and other devices to kill the time. One serious problem is the copyrights – pax as individuals can and do download movies illegally on Torrents, DC++ or other file sharing programs but airlines as corporations are strictly controlled to not do this.
    I would advise the airlines not to enter the content providing but do it the other way round: let the passengers bring the content onboard. For example – before the flight interested pax enters a social network and agrees to bring and exchange movies, music or games (also books, grandma’s cookies etc) and on-board meats his partners and copy the files. Airline’s task would be encouraging socializing of clients before and during flight and providing passengers with gadgets if they don’t have one (but it is unlikely that pax of that type would venture into file sharing).

    • Shashank Nigam

      Brilliant idea! Airlines can focus on the device and leave the content
      up to the passengers – and get them to socialize as well. Where have
      you been hiding till now? =)

  • privateaircharter

    I absolutely love the idea. As a pilot in corporate aviation, I see many possible useful applications for the iPad platform or similar. If it could replace the manuals in the cockpit, it would save space and some money because of the weight reduction. For that purpose -and possibly others too- the iPad first needs to be approved by the local aviation authorities which will take some time. Some smaller airplanes in our fleet do not have an IFE on board, an iPad can improve customer experience indeed.

    Thanks for the article.

  • prajakta

    Everytime the plane is taking off, the airhostesses are busy trying to get people to stop using their iPhones. I have heard the reason is that electronics interfere with the signals that the plane needs to follow to track its route.

    Well, won't iPads in the cockpit pose the same kind of trouble? And especially if they are to replace manuals, what's the point of manuals which need to be turned off during take off… isn't that when the manuals are needed since rest of the time, the flight is on autopilot??

    • jumpinstructor

      The ipad does not transmit to cell networks as an iphone would (depending on the model – at least – in the cockpit they would have that switched off). Besides that, stowage of (I)Phones during take off/ landing is not just because of radio signals, also because preventing them from flying around in case of an emergency.

  • Lucas

    2 Years ago we use iPods as a replacement our old Hi-8 personal player. We save space and fuel also. Our Airline waiting for new iPad and would like to offer this PMP to our PAX. I think that is more possibility how to provide content to PAX. You can load whole content to you iPads or you can set a media server with WiFi capabilities for streaming video, audio or simply news. You can imagine also to combine these two options. My oportunity with handling iPods content and whole operation (charging, cleaning,delivery to a/c…)are great. And I hope that we get enough iPads in near future…

  • mobike

    Great blog, Shashank.

    Good thinking.

    Send blog to Apple. Get your free iPad.

    You deserve it for the sales you've probably already generated.

    If you've already got an iPad, you are welcome to send the one you are gifted in gratitude, to me!


    • Shashank Nigam

      Oh, I wish they'd send me an iPad. I'll let you know if I get one 🙂

  • flyingwithfish

    First off … I am an Apple user. As I sit here with two MacBooks, an iMac and my iPhone I cannot deny I am Apple biased and have been since the mid 1980s.

    …that said … the iPad is not the solution for airline IFEC. The iPad is an excellent device with a lot of potential, but it is lacking some very import aspects for any airline integration.

    The iPad is costly, not to say the digEcor digEplayer L series, being released in May is not costly.

    The iPad has to many cons going against it, such as the iPad offers no support for the airlines, Apple does not offer up access to proprietary software so the iPad cannot be altered to meet the needs of each airline. The iPad is not ruggedized for daily use in the way an airline stand alone IFE product is used. Apple does not provide back end support or repair service contracts that and airline would need to implement the device. The iPad while an excellent media player is not designed to have its media loaded and unloaded in a manner an airline would require to maintain thousand of units. The battery life of the iPad is impressive, but not impressive enough to last many long haul flights with sustained video use.

    Options such as the digEcor digePlayer L series offer touch screen ease of use, established back end support for software & hardware, integrated ancillary revenue options, a rugged unit, sustained battery life for extended use and now offer wifi for accessing online options inflight. The digEcor products are designed to be deployed and updated in large numbers with the customizations options required by each airline.

    The ROI of the iPad just is not there for airlines to invest in as an IFEC solution, while other dedicated products exist without modification and a full support system in place to keep them up and running.

    -Steven Frischling

  • Adam

    Hey Shashank,

    I could not agree more with you that a portable device is a better IFE solution than a fully embedded system. The weight alone is reason enough to switch (not to mention the certification).

    What's interesting is your choice of the iPad as the portable solution. Here are a couple of thoughts I have.
    1 – The iPad lacks ruggedization required for inflight use (see how the screen easily breaks when PCWorld tested it
    2 – The battery life isn't long enough for long haul flights and can't be swapped inflight.
    3 – You suggested using pre-loaded content on pen-drives. The iPad doesn't have a USB port, so I'm not sure how that would work. Further, the studios would not allow early window content (which is what airlines desire) be placed on easily stolen or duplicated pen-drives. Meaning, the iPad would have to be pre-loaded with content. That's a very challenging proposition.
    4 – How do you put it on a tray table or move it out of the way when it's time to eat?
    5 – Last, a Wi-Fi installation is very expensive. Even though Aircell has aptly penetrated the US market, the business model still isn't profitable. Meaning, strong ancillary revenue programs are paramount to help offset the cost of Internet. The iPad was not designed with airlines and their specific needs in mind.

    So, I am 100% for ancillary revenue programs (see and portable devices inflight (see I just don't see the business case yet for iPads.

    Your thoughts?


  • jumpinstructor

    “But a lot of leading airlines like KLM, Iberia, American and United still do not have personal IFE and I do not foresee them equipping their planes with one, until the new planes arrive.”

    KLM is presently installing personal IFE in all of the current fleet, to be finished before end 2010.

    • Shashank Nigam

      Yup, and it's these BIG airlines with no IFEs, where the greatest
      opportunity lies.

      • jumpinstructor

        True of course, however i have to agree with adam though, that the IPad at this time is not yet suitable for airline-provided IFE, main reasons being not strong enough for passenger use, and management by the airline when it comes to content and logistics. It still really is a consumer device.

    • Adam

      KLM has had the digEplayer 5500 (personal IFE) since 2004, just not on all of its flights.

      • jumpinstructor

        My fault, i wasnt entirely correct.
        KLM's B737 (europe) fleet has no embedded IFE, but there are 3 routes running outside of Europe (including privatair wetlease to Houston) where DigEplayers are supplied to business class passengers.
        All wide bodies will have panasonic IFE end 2010, b747 being the last retrofitted model.

  • Patrick Murphy

    Smart thinking, Shashank.
    definitely amother valuable source of ancillary revenue.

  • Waylon Kenning

    I'm concerned about their fragility. In an environment which can quickly get turbulent, and iPad's big screen could easily get damaged quickly. While an airline that rents out iPads is likely to get a lot of publicity, I doubt it is the correct device for the job.

    Perhaps a ruggedised Google-android powered device would be more successful. These could be manufactured at a lower cost than an iPad, and have features more suited towards an airline, such as reduced power Wifi, and a replaceable battery.

  • Patrick Fennell

    These days most people either have a laptop, MP3 / Media player, e-book, PSP and some people travel with all of the above. Pax dont like paying for stuff and asking them to pay for something that they are not familiar with is not going to have a wide appeal. Perhaps someone who is curious to buy it might like to try it out before hand.

    You also have the issue of re-charging them. Who is going to go to the trouble of taking them off the aircraft, recharging them and placing them back on board? or retrofitting to accomodate a charger? All sorts of safety implications there.
    Maintaining them in decent condition is also a consideration. There is a maxim among aircraft maintenance folks that if pax can touch something; it will get broken. People are less careful with things that dont belong to them too.

    What happens to them when they break? The battery replacement issue?

    Perhaps if Apple gave them for free then you could, as IFE manager, dabble with it.

    In an age of tight profit margins I think it is a non runner. Handing out a newpaper would probably work out cheaper.

  • crappad

    Whoever wrote this article smokes crack for breakfast! Airline software runs stricly on PC's, not on Macs. Plus the crapPad doesn't do flash. Suck it Steve Jobs!

  • Viettel 3G

    thanks 4share

  • Umberto

    Malaysia Airlines and iPAD kiosks!!!!

  • iPad Accessories

    I just liked the idea of using iPad in the cockpit so as to save the space and money. Great thinking!

  • Jeffery Wilson

    If social media can be heart warming it's in crises like the Haitian Earthquake and this Icelandic Ash Cloud incident that buffs it to a brilliant shine. There are many foo-fooers out there when it comes to Twitter and Facebook Status Updates, but those same folks are silent in the aftermath of the Life/Time/Money-saving demonstrations that vett the validity, utility and true necessity of our present day digitally-in-touch society. 😉 Foo-Foo all you want, because It Works. Acai Max Cleanse

  • LienDTK

    Oh thanks, i appriciate that!

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