* Lufthansa to offer streaming on medium-haul from summer
* Qatar Airways defends traditional seatback movie systems
* Icelandic budget carrier Wow to rent out iPads with movies
By Victoria Bryan and Tim Hepher
BERLIN, March 5 Germany's Lufthansa on
Wednesday announced plans to offer wirelessly streamed movies to
passengers on trans-European flights, sparking a clash over the
future of traditional seatback systems at the world's largest
Europe's largest traditional network carrier said passengers
on some medium-haul flights would be able to stream movies, TV
programmes, music or games from an onboard server to their own
portable devices or smartphones starting from the summer.
The scheme would be available on routes such as Europe to
Russia, Middle East or North Africa, starting with 20 Airbus
A321 aircraft, which carry about 220 people, the airline said.
Jens Bischof, Lufthansa's chief commercial officer,
dismissed concerns that some passengers would be left out.
"Everyone travels with a tablet or smartphone these days,"
he told a news conference at ITB Berlin, which attracts 113,000
tour operators, hoteliers, government and airline officials.
The BoardConnect system chosen by Lufthansa is offered by
one of its own subsidiaries, Lufthansa Systems.
It competes with streaming systems developed by France's
Thales and Japan's Panasonic Avionics. Those
two firms are also the leading manufacturers of the traditional
systems embedded into the seats of most long-haul aircraft.
One of Lufthansa's main rivals, Qatar Airways, dismissed
onboard streaming and said it would stick with embedded systems.
"This system is in its infancy and we would not like to
introduce something that is not properly tested," Chief
Executive Akbar Al Baker said.
"Imagine in an airplane you have 200 passengers all
switching on tablets. What interference that would provide to
aircraft communications and avionics is still not proven."
A spokesman for Lufthansa said the safety of systems like
BoardConnect, which is already used by Virgin Australia, had
been proven 10 years ago when their development first began.
"If there is any doubt, the flight crew has the power to
shut down all the devices," he said.
The face-off reflects a debate over the future of in-flight
entertainment systems that are increasingly seen as potentially
lucrative shopping platforms as well as airborne cinemas.
On long flights operated on 400-500-seat jets run by major
carriers, the odds are still stacked against streaming because
of questions over performance and content curbs, said Mary
Kirby, an expert on in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems.
A ban by Hollywood production companies on streaming very
recent films means that content tends to be older. That may put
off carriers that depend on fresh multi-channel content as a way
of differentiating their cabins and underpinning ticket prices.
"Early-Window content is crucial to airlines like Qatar
Airways. They and others have massive libraries," said Kirby,
founder and editor of Runway Girl Network. "Hollywood is
underpinning the business model in embedded IFE," she added.
Qatar Airways announced it would nonetheless include
wireless Internet connectivity on upcoming additions to its
fleet such as the Airbus A380, A350 and A320neo.
At the other end of the comfort spectrum, Icelandic low-cost
carrier Wow Air, announcing services to the United States, said
it would make up for its lack of in-flight entertainment systems
by renting passengers iPads preloaded with movies and TV shows.