Comedian Louis C.K. gets a chorus of cheers from the audience when he tells his “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” bit on Conan O’Brien. In it, C.K. playfully ridicules airline passengers who take their inflight web access for granted only seconds after learning about its existence.

For years the airline industry has been working to bring passengers the convenience of the web inflight. Now that it’s here everyone from passengers to content distributors are changing their expectations for what an inflight experience can be.

And despite the amount of attention media gives to aircraft seats, industry watchers suggest passengers value connectivity even more than legroom.

Looking past the pitch

Leading design agency Teague’s Principal Brand Strategist, Devin Liddell, tells us: “Airlines should move away from a concept of space and size, and give passengers services they want instead: connectivity, entertainment, service. They should address the emotional side of the travel experience.  People care more about these than seat pitch.”

For Dave Davis, chief operating officer and CFO at Global Eagle Entertainment, inflight connectivity is a core business focus: “GEE’s goal as a provider of both connectivity and content services is to help airlines to meet [passenger] needs with both our robust content services platform and connectivity solutions.”

And while wireless may be great for checking email and updating your social feeds in the air, it also affords an opportunity for enjoying more live entertainment.

From a technical standpoint, airlines can pull from a vast library of content stored on the ground rather than being limited by the space on smaller IFE servers.

And it’s not just about the movies. There is plenty of potential for gaming applications, including the possibility of playing interactive games with friends online. And this summer several airlines made headlines for live-streaming the World Cup.

Once a state of the art IFE system is paired with a high-speed IFC service, the possibilities of what one could do onboard increase dramatically.

Making business sense of connectivity

Demand for streamed IFE content is driving airlines to invest in onboard connectivity: JetBlue with ViaSat, Southwest with Global Eagle Entertainment and DISH, and the Delta Studio powered by Gogo.

Meanwhile, connectivity suppliers are also positioning themselves to provide a variety of content options, including live-streaming content to airlines.

To expand their market, some suppliers are even going “offline,” providing content not dependent on connectivity, ensuring sales on airlines that for economic reasons might not equip their aircraft with antennas.

“It’s also important to note that the streaming capabilities can be done in a non-connected environment, where the passenger connects via Wi-Fi to content stored on a server on the plane,” says Donald Buchman, director at ViaSat.  “This will also provide the carriers with incremental revenue opportunities by charging for certain content, such as the purchase of new releases or specific television shows.”

The approach helps some connectivity suppliers earn money while they wait for airlines to equip. Gogo has recently done this following FAA approval of its new Gogo Vision stand-alone product.

License to disrupt

Gogo Vision offers video entertainment for passengers, delivered straight to their Wi-Fi devices. Image via Gogoair.com

Gogo Vision offers video entertainment for passengers, delivered straight to their Wi-Fi devices. Image via Gogoair.com

The combination of value that passengers place on connectivity, new solutions for line-fitted antennae, as well as a host of other potential applications for connectivity, could soon tip the balance in favour of more connected aircraft – at least on newer models.

The only missing link in this daisy chain is strong collaboration by content producers.

“Due to piracy concerns, we can only offer old content, one year old or more, for [streaming] systems, which doesn’t make the product at all compelling,” Paramount Pictures’ Mark Horton told APEX Magazine’s Tomás Romero in a recent interview.

That could change soon.  The appeal of Netflix service on JetBlue’s ViaSat powered IFE system, and Netflix’s investment in the production of exclusive award-winning programming suggests content licensing is due for a disruption.

Donald Buchman thinks so: “Broadcast entertainment, a-la-carte entertainment content, passengers choosing what content they want to use on board—that’s where we’re headed. Instead of airlines being the curators of content onboard, passengers become their own curators.”

Beyond the possibilities for entertainment produced by the studios and by disruptive new content providers like Netflix, opportunities abound for branded content in the cabin.

The speed with which our entertainment and communication habits are evolving on the ground necessitate these changes in the sky.

Many airlines, like Iberia and American Airlines are acknowledging that passengers want to have the same viewing and productivity experience in the air as they enjoy at home, and have begun equipping to provide an “at home in the air” experience to their passengers.

We may only be starting to see the aviation industry respond to these trends, but watch this space. Change is coming. And that’s no joke.