Now that the FAA and airlines have become more comfortable with personal devices in the cabin, the skirmish is on over who controls, programs and underwrites that inner airspace. Obviously there has been a cottage industry for in-flight entertainment for decades. From the drop-down screen at the end of the cabin from yesteryear only five passengers could see well to the seat-back LCDs of today that seem to follow obscure non-intuitive interfaces…when the damned things actually work, the airlines have been media intermediaries for a long time.
One hope is that the ubiquity of personal devices spells the end of the airline-supplied media hardware. United takes a step in that direction by introducing next month a sponsored, free movie streaming service in the cabin. In-flight WiFi has become familiar to most of us frequent fliers, of course. But most airlines seem to have left it to GoGo, among others, to manage the content and connectivity.
The new program is sponsored by Mileage Plus Explorer Card and it will give tablet and smartphone users access to 150 movies and 200 TV shows, all free.
One of the interesting things about the program is that it is being administered through the United app on iOS. Android users don’t get a version until later this year. Once on board, the app will be enabled to access the media. The process does not require purchasing WiFi connectivity on board. Laptop users can also get the movies and TV shows via a browser plugin.
By keeping the experience in its own app, United is of course enhancing the distribution of an app that can also be used for flight tracking and boarding passes. So it serves as app promotion. It also ensures that United controls the experience, promotional offers.
There is a kind of dynamic tension that personal devices introduce into all physical space once fully controlled by the builder of the experience, whether it is retail, restaurant, airport or airline. Phone and tablet create personal tunnels of communication and access to tools and media that the experience owner no longer controls. The retailer/airline/restaurant now seems to have to renegotiate with the device owner who is the best source of content in a given location. Respect must be given to the intimate space the device represents and giving the customer a sense of control over what comes in and out of their device. But the site owner is tasked with earning re-entry to the customer’s senses by providing some sort of extra value to earn back their attention.
The battle for consumer attention is happening in the trenches, aisle by aisle, passenger seat by passenger seat.