Missing IFE: What The Heck is PAL Thinking?

In our in-depth feature of Philippine Airlines in-flight entertainment, HybridAce101 evaluates the state of PAL's in-flight entertainment and whether it is keeping up with industry trends or falling behind. The decision for PAL to not include IFE on its new aircraft could either make the airline a trendsetter or cause it to fall behind the rest of the world's carriers once again...

Until 2008, Philippine Airlines was one of only two carriers that lacked personal in-flight entertainment (IFE) on long-haul flights across all its classes. The other was European carrier, Lufthansa. However, it was not long until Lufthansa reconfigured its entire long-haul fleet to provide the personal IFE feature in economy class. PAL only went as far as reconfiguring their Boeing 747 fleet, and requesting installation of personal IFE in their newly ordered Boeing 777 fleet in late 2006.

"Cabin Interior of PAL Boeing 777"
Image Source: Philippine Airlines
In 2012, PAL placed a multi-billion dollar order for brand new Airbus A321s and A330s. While many expected that PAL would be consistent in offering similar IFE features in these new aircraft, it remained unclear whether they actually would until the first A321s and all-economy A330s arrived. When they did arrive, it was discovered to the dismay of passengers,  including OFWs who a lot presume can afford enough only to fly with the bare essentials, that there was no in-flight entertainment on board at all.
"Missing IFE: Cabin Interior of PAL A321"
Copyright Photo: HybridAce101/PFN
Some people suggested that the bare-bones all-economy configured A330 aircraft were intended for destinations in the Middle East and that everyone should wait for the bi-class configured A330 models to arrive. However, mixed perceptions still exist as to whether PAL's new bi-class A330 will save PAL from being perceived as a low-cost carrier (LCC)-wannabe. Rumours indicate that the new Panasonic ex3 may be installed on these aircraft but PAL insiders have cited internal memos indicating that nothing will be installed.

At this point, it seems more likely that nothing will be installed.  If Philippine Airlines was planning to feature a new IFE system, common business sense would dictate that PAL should have marketed this a long time ago. In fact, that is precisely what PAL did when they announced an order for Boeing 777 aircraft several years ago as it is a common trend in the airline industry for airlines to announce new in-flight entertainment systems and features in advance.

If we are correct in believing that no in-flight entertainment will be installed on the A330 aircraft deployed to Australia, Hawaii, Japan and Europe, it may trigger a lightning rod of complaints about PAL. It also brings a serious question to mind: "What in the world is PAL thinking?"

It is likely that they are thinking that modern IFE as we know it represents an added cost and given that many passengers now bring their own devices on board as a trend, the cost of adding in-flight entertainment may not be justified. However, this theory of stripping aircraft of IFE as a cost-cutting measure has yet to gain acceptance among legacy airlines, at least for now. This raises the question if PAL has made a smart strategic choice to lead the industry in the direction they believe it is going, or if the airline will simply end up falling behind once again.


It is no secret that ever since Ramon Ang assumed the leadership of PAL, a key component of his mission has been to lower its operating costs, or as they say, lower the cost base. Some have even suggested that his objective is to rationalise operations by applying the best practices of legacy carrier Philippine Airlines with PAL Express (theoretically a low-cost carrier) and vice versa. This concept of a ‘hybrid carrier’ is supposed to be the product of consolidating best practices at each carrier. That should mean a single set of standards will be followed by both carriers eventually resulting in lower costs for Philippine Airlines as it adopts the practices that enabled PAL Express to thrive as a low-cost carrier, particularly during its time as Airphil Express.

But what does this all mean for the future of in-flight entertainment at Philippine Airlines? It implies and highlights that IFE is an added cost on several levels. For example, the IFE system that a passenger enjoys on flights with other carriers costs up to $3 million (£1.8 million) per aircraft to install. This is in addition to the cost of individual seat-back televisions estimated at $10,000 (£6,000) per unit and that’s just the cost of the equipment.

PAL also has to commission content to supply the IFE needs of the airline. The suppliers of such content certainly won’t give that out for free. This may explain why PAL doesn’t have as wide a variety of films, television series, music or games as their competitors. Obviously, the more content PAL wishes to provide its passengers, the more it will have to pay to its suppliers.

Then there are several indirect costs to account for. With in-flight entertainment equipment installed, the aircraft becomes physically heavier. When the aircraft is heavier, it means more fuel is required to fly it to its intended destination. To put that in perspective, let’s take a look at the Boeing 767. European carrier Lufthansa believes that eliminating 1,100 pounds of hardware used to provide IFE to 260 passengers can save up to 80 tonnes of fuel per year per aircraft

"Lufthansa Wireless On-Board Entertainment System"
Image Source: Airline Trends
So far, the point is that having an elaborate IFE system entails both direct and indirect costs. However, that does not mean that the world's air carriers have rushed to cut costs across the board. In spite of intense competition from regional low cost carriers, legacy carriers including Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Garuda Indonesia, Malaysia Airlines, Korean Airlines, China Airlines, and even European carriers such as British Airways, KLM, and Air France continue to apply their existing cost-saving strategies without compromising the quality of their IFE. In fact, these carriers continue to invest further in their IFE offerings with examples like Cathay Pacific that have introduced 10.6" touch screen televisions in Premium Economy with the ability to stream media direct from personal devices. One would suspect that if they continue to invest in modern IFE systems, which assist the carrier in providing quality service that passengers have come to expect from them, they can justify the additional IFE expenditures. However, the keyword here is "investment" rather than "expense." In spite of increasing competition from low-cost carriers, these carriers believe that a core set of passengers will continue to patronise them - and pay top dollar to fly with them - as long as they continue to live-up to the standards of safety, comfort and enjoyment that they have long exhibited.

"Singapore Airlines IFE System"
Image Source: Singapore Airlines
With that in mind, Philippine Airlines seems to have played it safe with the fear that the Philippine market prefers a low-cost model or that the market simply cannot bear much beyond that. Unfortunately, by spending less on in-flight entertainment, they have likely missed an important opportunity to set a standard in Philippine aviation that distinguishes themselves from low-cost carriers like Cebu Pacific, AirAsia Zest and even PAL Express. At this point, the best they can give on new aircraft are iPads. This certainly costs less at $250,000 (£150,000) per plane to have the relevant systems installed in addition to the practice of carrying fewer iPads on board than the number of passengers. Unfortunately, the iPads have an inherently lower capacity. A standard definition film on an iPad is approximately 1.5 GB in size. An Apple iPad has a maximum capacity of 64 GB, which means that for films alone, it can only hold approximately 40-45 of them. Other carriers offer hundreds of films in their collection. Wouldn't one expect passengers to get bored on a 15-hour Manila-London flight with PAL's limited collection? To further put this in perspective, I flew both Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific going to London from Manila on separate occasions. On Singapore Airlines, I personally found the audio selection inadequate for my tastes, while Cathay Pacific had a lot of my favourite music. But if those were my impressions of other carriers rated as some of the best in the world, what can a passenger expect from PAL with their extremely limited selection of media? 

"Philippine Airlines iPad Tablet"
Image Source: Philippine Airlines
Even if PAL is attempting to align itself more as a LCC, the fact is that even LCC's have retained IFE of some sort. North American low-cost carriers Jetblue and WestJet continue to operate live satellite television on-board their aircraft after many years. This is even on domestic and regional flights as short as one hour. Jetblue even offers this service complimentary to passengers. WestJet has since stopped ordering this type of IFE on newer aircraft opting to replace them with Samsung tablets. However, this is supposed to be a temporary measure as WestJet looks for a replacement system with lower operating costs that offers similar features to live seat back television. Low cost carrier Jetstar currently offers main-screen in-flight entertainment to all passengers on board their A330 aircraft in addition to an option to have personal IFE in the form of a handheld device. 

"Canadian LCC WestJet Boeing 737 IFE"
Image Source: JohnnyJet

It seems that PAL might just believe that bringing personal devices on board aircraft is the trend of the future. Indeed, I witnessed that ever since iPads and other tablets proliferated, passengers have relied on these devices to provide them with entertainment. And why not? Since these are personal devices, most of the content is presumed to be personalised and interesting to its user. Therefore, if a passenger is bored or doesn’t find the IFE selection satisfactory, their personal devices can be relied upon to provide the entertainment that the passenger needs, whether it is films, music or games.

survey done by digEcor in 2011 revealed that around 45% of those surveyed prefer the traditional in-flight entertainment, and that the majority of those surveyed who preferred it were over 60 years old. The very same survey highlighted that younger travellers relied more on their own handheld device for entertainment, with the seat back system scoring lowest among those 41-45 years old at less than 30%. Based on these figures, it would be reasonable to believe that PAL feels that the modern IFE preferences of passengers do not justify the costs of installing new equipment. Their decisions may indeed be vindicated one day.

"WestJet Portable Clip-on Tray Table IFE"
Image Source: WestJet Airlines
For those who do not bring their own devices, PAL’s solution seems to be to provide them with iPads. As earlier discussed, they are lighter and cost much less to the carrier. Unfortunately, for regular economy class passengers who wish to use them, it will come at an added cost.

Having said that, the "bring your own personal device" model is far from ideal. First, these devices need to be charged. If one is continually watching films or playing games on their iPad, the battery life will run down quickly. Unlike most other carriers that fly long-haul, PAL only provides AC power ports to Business Class passengers travelling on its Boeing 777, Airbus A319, A320 and A321 aircraft. A USB power port is not sufficient to recharge iPads.

Secondly, not everyone is able to afford their own mobile device, smartphones or tablets. These cost at least $300 (£180) and we are not even talking about branded ones such as Apple’s iPads.

Thirdly, and this concerns the iPads PAL provides, it may be daunting or tedious to account for all of the iPads rented-out or lent-out to passengers. This may especially be a concern when bigger aircraft is used or when a flight is full. If reports are correct, the new A330s expected to service more premium routes will have 45 combined business and premium economy class seats. That means at least 45 complimentary units to account for. There is a risk that some passengers may claim that the iPad in sight belongs to them. It may be time-consuming to verify whether it is the case (e.g. through looking at their belongings), especially when the cabin crew have other responsibilities and passengers to deal with. Moreover, the passengers may have changed their seats mid-flight. Unlike a retail store, aircraft are not equipped with the same censors to trigger an alarm the moment an item is about to be stolen or has not been ‘checked-out’ properly. Remember, if other service items may get removed from the aircraft by unscrupulous passengers from time to time like blankets, safety cards, headsets, what more with an iPad? If one of them goes missing, then it is an undoubtedly serious matter the crew must deal with.

Moreover, even if PAL is vindicated with how it approaches the IFE aspect, the problem is that their moves to strip new aircraft of IFE is all happening too fast for seasoned passengers. While trends point out to testing WiFi as a medium to stream content, it is still in its infancy stages. The system is subject to further study and testing before a final decision is made about its long-term use for the airlines that wish to commission it.

This raises the question of whether in-flight entertainment as we know it is on its way out. This is significant because if PAL is getting rid of this but the rest of the industry is not, then PAL will have a real problem. On one hand, you have the likes of Lufthansa testing out a streaming service and Qantas providing pre-loaded iPads to passengers. Under Lufthansa’s proposed system, passengers with a smartphone or tablet will be able to access their flight’s IFE selection using a WiFi network. However, news articles have emphasised that Lufthansa is offering this on medium-haul flights (i.e. Europe to Russia, the Middle East and North Africa), and there is no indication the existing IFE system on its long-haul fleet is going anywhere. The same can be said about Qantas’ long-haul IFE system.  Singapore Airlines subsidiary Scoot also offers a relatively similar service for passengers with a laptop or iPad - for a fee. United is following suit after Lufthansa to offer free WiFi streaming of its audio and video collection for passengers with laptops or iPhones/iPads through a special app. Availability for Android devices is expected to follow later in the year. However, reports are out that United is in progress to install live satellite TV on its fleet of Boeing 737 and 757 aircraft as well.

"Air Canada Express Bombardier CRJ-705 Regional Jet IFE"
Image Source: Airliners.net
On the other hand, carriers like American Airlines have decided to order new aircraft that contain IFE in all classes with audio-video on demand (AVOD) capability, even on narrow-bodied aircraft for short-haul flights. What makes things interesting is that the Boeing 767-200 is one of those aircraft types that American Airlines plans to replace with a newer model. The IFE offered in the first class section of older aircraft provides passengers with a portable DVD device. But American will be replacing this with a complete audio-video on demand system. In other words, this is essentially a reverse of what is happening at Philippine Airlines that once featured AVOD capabilities on their narrow-body aircraft in 2007 but now just features portable devices.

As usual, carriers like Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are continuing to provide the most advanced IFE on their flights with regularly updated media collections and interfaces. What set these carriers apart further is that some of their aircraft (Singapore Airlines A330s and select Cathay Pacific A330s and Boeing 777-300s) have the ability to allow passengers to listen or watch content from a passenger’s personal collection using the aircraft’s IFE system. Such systems essentially ‘mirror’ what is found in the passenger’s personal electronic devices. That means in case a passenger gets bored of the flight’s IFE content, he or she can still enjoy the aircraft's IFE system using his or her own personal collection. While it is available on limited aircraft and only good for Apple devices, it is one way that a passenger’s personal electronic devices can complement rather than completely substitute the aircraft’s built-in IFE. This provides passengers with the best of both worlds rather than the airline making a choice between one or the other. More importantly, they free a passenger’s hands from holding their electronic devices and free tray table space for greater comfort as the device can be slipped into the seat pocket. After all, some things are enjoyed best on a bigger screen - or without being held.

The point here is that Philippine Airlines should not just substitute an iPad for traditional seat back IFE. Reports such as one prepared by Deloitte point out that if anything, they are intended to complement each other, and that it is in the carriers’ interests to ensure that they do. In fact, that same report suggests that at the moment, the IFE experience should be akin to what is found in a passenger's living room where the seat back screens are used by passengers to watch videos whilst the tablet is used to surf the internet. Whilst the ability to stream high-definition content above 35,000 feet will be a game-changer, it doesn’t preclude carriers from continuing to offer IFE as we know it today in the future. In fact, the traditional IFE can also be used to enhance existing services such as ordering items and reducing manpower on-board - as safety regulations permit of course; but manpower is a different matter altogether.


Despite the evolving nature of IFE, nothing will replace the sight of having a monitor in the seat back in front of you and that's what PAL must understand. Other carriers are testing out streaming content over WiFi but they are simultaneously committed to keeping - and enhancing their existing IFE systems.

Cutting costs, which is what seems to be at the core of PAL’s strategy doesn’t necessarily mean cutting IFE as we know it altogether. Lower-cost options for preserving the essence of today’s IFE are being introduced, but with PAL reducing their offerings to iPads on newer aircraft makes it difficult for them to win over or sustain business passengers and affluent tourists. Even many of the overseas Filipino workers in places like Europe, North America, or Australia can afford and will pay for the services that they want in addition to the likes of the average western tourist. All of those demographics are supposed to be who PAL is targeting to set them apart from the competition. Cutting costs should not be conflated cutting parts of the experience that add value. Doing so to the point of cutting IFE will ironically come with the added cost of passenger dissatisfaction to the benefit of the competition. If PAL faced more direct competition on many of their routes, they might just find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

The new A330 aircraft being ordered should have been an opportunity for PAL to demonstrate that it is a world-class carrier, partially through their IFE offerings on-board. Unfortunately, with PAL now lacking traditional IFE on their new aircraft including main screen, PAL is missing a lot. Every country deserves a legacy carrier with a decent IFE system especially when that flag carrier is a source of national pride.

If the PAL Group is really insistent on providing no built-in IFE on its new A330 fleet at all, it should have just allocated all of them to PAL Express especially given that PAL Express’ Manila-Dubai service is nearly identical to PAL’s other Middle East routes. The same goes for the A321 fleet. At least if passengers were to complain about the lack of IFE, PAL Express would bear the brunt of these complaints rather than Philippine Airlines. When Ramon Ang decided to rebrand airphil Express into PAL Express, he wanted passengers to enjoy the same service on both carriers to build a better brand reputation. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true and now they also share the same complaints reflecting poorly on both carriers. While PAL Express may have been upgraded slightly from its predecessor, Philippine Airlines leaves much more to be desired having taken steps backwards. The offering of iPads is indeed ideal for the LCC model that PAL Express embodies. But how does that benefit PAL or its passengers? Had PAL Express retained a completely distinct identity, this topic may not be an issue today, but that debate will be saved for another article.

I understand that to a significant extent, PAL does not like to be a cast as a mere follower of what well-established legacy carriers do. But with what it is doing, I don’t think it is a leader either.



Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not represent the opinions of Philippine Flight Network or Philippine Airlines.
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