airplane_sweatEngadget’s Zach Honig has written an interesting piece about airlines’ quiet move towards the future of in-flight entertainment (IFE).  As Honig points out, the new Boeing 737 has barebacked seats with no obvious IFE to speak of. There are no drop-down monitors and the new seats don’t even have headphone jacks with access to in-flight radio. In short, Honig reports, the future of IFE is in passengers’ hands, literally.

As in-flight wifi becomes more ubiquitous, airlines are hoping to replace DirecTV, or whatever stock entertainment system airlines have installed, with wifi access so we can use our own devices. No longer will you be forced to watch whatever is on the screen in front of you: you’ll now have the entire Internet available to you via your phone or tablet.

This shift to bring-your-own-device (BYOD) is great for many reasons; not least of which is greater choice in entertainment options, but it also has obvious drawbacks. BYOIFE now means that airlines have effectively shifted the cost of entertaining passengers from them to those same passengers. While doing so, they’ve left passengers vulnerable to wifi price hikes: If you want any kind of IFE, you’re going to have to pony up.

Market forces have encouraged airlines to focus on wifi as a primary revenue generator. Wifi systems weigh less, saving on fuel costs. Upgrading one wifi module is cheaper than replacing 200 screens. And asking the customer to pay for access to their email is probably an easier sell than asking them to pay to watch the nightly news.

I worry this last point will become the airlines’ new marketing strategy. Essentially a net neutrality fight in the skies. Withhold Facebook or Twitter and customers will pay whatever it takes, particularly on longer flights, to get access.