How American Airlines is upgrading air travel with Samsung Galaxy Tabs

by John Gaudiosi

February 6 2012

TabTimes checks in with American Airlines on its ongoing deployment of tablets across its fleet of planes.

After decades of using the cumbersome, outdated portable entertainment devices (PEDs) in premium class on transcontinental and international flights, American Airlines has upgraded to Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablets.

According to Mark Smith, American Airlines’ Manager of Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity, the airline worked with Samsung on customizing these tablets for American’s in-flight entertainment needs, including the addition of expanded memory which provides the capability for even more entertainment offerings.

While Smith wouldn’t specify the memory upgrade, each tablet comes pre-loaded with over 70 movies, including 30 new releases, as well as a variety of television programs and audio selections.

However, despite the NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor and the fact that even the old PEDs had simple touch-screen games like Solitaire built-in and the proliferation of tablet casual games, the new Samsung tablets currently offer no videogames.

“Additional tablet functionality and content will be rolled out in subsequent phases over time and additional functions will include Wi-Fi capability on equipped aircraft, games, eReader publications, and more,” said Smith.

“We’re still evaluating games because of the trade-off of how many movies we can provide versus TV shows and music and games,” said Rob Friedman, American Airlines Vice President of Marketing. “We really want to have a well-balanced offering for our customers and we’re constantly going to review the past history, the usage and whatnot and understand the capabilities.”

With the tablet’s high quality screen, the entertainment experience has received a huge upgrade. The old PEDs offered low-end standard definition movies that were often hard to watch. The new tablets bring American’s entertainment back in line with what today’s digital consumers are used to. Smith wouldn’t specify the tablet’s MDM system for proprietary reasons. The airline is following the same protocol it did with PEDs in collecting all tablets, along with Bose headphones, 30 minutes before each flight lands.

Friedman said these tablets are a recognition that the airline’s customer demographic continues to change. The airline wanted a new product that included the capability to change over time, whether that be new movies and games, or new capabilities like streaming and Wi-Fi.

“We’re keeping track of what resonates with our customers so that we could potentially add more of that particular component or change things up as we move forward,” said Friedman.

“What’s always very interesting to us is how the need of our customers change on a continuous basis even with the same customer. For example, flying to Europe in an eastbound direction overnight, typically we find that our customers' entertainment and productivity needs are very different than when they’re returning from Europe, mainly for U.S. based customers on a westbound basis. These tablets offer more choices for customers.”

With a Wi-Fi upgrade to these tablets planned, consumers will be able to stream movies through Netflix and other services using these devices in the near future. In addition, American will eventually offer its own streaming movies for these tablets. The airline introduced streaming entertainment on all of its 767-200 planes last fall and charges $.99 per TV show and $3.99 per movie with a library of over 100 offerings. Consumers who pay for this entertainment do not have to also buy the GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi.

“We rolled that out on our 767-200 fleet, which primarily operates between the coast between JFK and Los Angeles and JFK and San Francisco,” said Friedman. “Our overall goal is to roll out entertainment-on-demand to our entire Wi-Fi enabled fleet, which has already begun.

"We think that the Samsung Galaxy Tab, along with offering in-flight Wi-Fi in addition to streaming video really provides our customers with a wide variety of tremendous options.”

Friedman said that American has seen a continuous growth of 30 percent on a year over year basis for Wi-Fi usage on flights. He believes this number will continue to grow, as will the streaming entertainment.

“We’ve designed the streaming technology so that we feel very confident that the maximum of people on a given flight will be well-supported for streaming entertainment through services like Netflix or streaming our on-board entertainment,” said Alice Liu, American Airlines' Managing Director of Onboard Products. (Editor's Note: American Airlines emailed us to say that Netflix streaming will not be supported on the airline's tablets. The above quote is in error.) 

“Certainly we can ramp that up if necessary, but our Wi-Fi capability is air to ground. That’s essentially beaming information up to the airplane and streaming video to all within the aircraft, so we have the capability to do both and they’re on separate infrastructure. We have customers that are surfing the Web while customers are streaming video, and then we’ll have a certain number of customers that are doing both.”

As tablet prices continue to drop, more flyers will travel with Galaxy Tabs and other devices of their own. But given the built-in entertainment that these American tablets provide, even those who own a tablet will likely use these premium class devices, just as many who own Bose headphones use the ones in business class.

Moving forward, it's a no-brainer that more airlines will join American and British Airways in upgrading entertainment experiences to custom tablet devices.

John Gaudiosi has been covering the videogame industry for 20 years for outlets like Reuters, The Washington Post, Forbes and The Hollywood Reporter

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