Emirates Airlines will have up to 20 planes equipped with live TV by the end of this year, as the Dubai-based carrier invests in in-flight entertainment.
Emirates currently has up to eight live channels including BBC World News in English, BBC Arabic, Euronews and Sport24.
“Imagine some of the biggest events,” said Patrick Brannelly, vice-president, corporate communications marketing and brand product, publishing, digital and events. “You want to be watching this on live television. Likewise, if you have a Fifa World Cup final and you happen to be on a plane at that time,”
At present the live TV service is available on select Boeing 777 flights.
While travellers might not necessarily pay extra for a plane ticket from an airline that provides superior in-flight entertainment Mr Brannelly said that it drives passengers’ loyalty.
“Having a passenger come back to you instead of having a whole new passenger is where the money is for an airline.” he said.
“[However] sometimes people say we prefer Emirates, we are paying a bit more, but in fact sometimes we are actually cheaper.”
Since its early days, Emirates has emphasised the importance of in-flight entertainment. The airline was the first in the world to put a TV on every seat in 1992. At that time, the first screen was only six inches — about the size of some smartphone screens today. Currently, it is 13 inches in economy class.
“Airlines invest hundreds of millions of dollars in their entertainment systems. For each plane it’s between US$8 million and $15m,” Mr Brannelly said.
A recent study by IMS Research, a market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry, showed that more than 10,500 aircraft worldwide have an in-flight entertainment system, or about 57.5 per cent of all planes in airline fleets. The number is expected to increase to two-thirds of all commercial aircraft by 2022.
A decade ago, Emirates introduced its flight entertainment system, known as “Ice”.
“I remember at the time people calling and asking is this plane an ‘Ice’ plane? Because they got children and their children were asking for ice. Reservations called me asking what is this ‘Ice’ plane?” said Mr Brannelly.
But the ice product has since gone a long way. At the start, it only had one channel dedicated children’s entertainment. Now the airline has close to 50 Disney films and dozens of channels for children. Separately, the Ice product has 85 Hollywood movies, along with other regional content from the Middle East, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Japan, Korea and Nigerian Nollywood.
“If you are a Korean person getting in our plane in Seoul and flying through Dubai to maybe South America, you will need to get some content in your language,” said Mr Brannelly.
Airlines are expected to spend a total of $900m on in-flight entertainment content by 2018, up from $660m in 2012, according to the IMS report. Emirates did not specify how much it spends on in-flight content every year. However, Mr Brannelly said: “We spend what we need to give the best product in the world. Look at the overall investment, it’s a significant investment, and I use the word investment because it has to return to the airline through loyalty.”
The significance of in-flight entertainment is such that low-cost carriers are also providing it. Virgin America and flydubai are among these.
“It’s something very obvious. People from across the world love watching television. They love entertainment. At the end of the day, all of these programmes are beautiful stories and people love stories,” said Mr Brannelly.