The sky's the limit

In-flight entertainment is about to undergo a revolution, writes Meg Ca rter
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Once there was little to do on long flights except watch old episodes of Mr Bean, or wrestle with your partner in the confines of an airborne WC. Airlines are the first to admitthat air travel is boring. So, how about a Shiatsu massage? Having a s uit made? Or buying a car, ready to pick up when you land? There are now many tactics aimed at persuading passengers that a particular airline is different to the others, and really does care.

Today, the personal pampering starts even before you leave the ground. At Heathrow, the Virgin Clubhouse boasts a Victorian shoeshine boy and giant model railway, and diners can eat at a 17th-century banqueting table on loan from Richard Branson's own country home.

Once airborne, Virgin travellers can enjoy the services of a team of onboard beauty therapists who will cut hair and pour aromatherapy oils on pulse points. One Hong Kong flight even boasts an in-flight tailor, on hand to take measurements and fax details to a tailor's shop at the destination airport, where a little number will be run up by the time you land.

Comfort indeed, but at a price. Until now, most of these gimmicks have been available only to business class travellers. But what if you are stuck at the back of the plane, in cattle class? Fear not, the communications revolution has an answer.

With a television and audio unit attached to every seat, even the humblest economy traveller soon will be able to surf across 24 entertainment channels. Latest "video on demand" technology will allow anyone to select and start to watch a movie whenever they like, play computer games, or shop at some of the world's top department stores via satellite link.

"You name it, this system will eventually be able to accommodate it - virtual reality, the Internet, any leading edge technology," says Ken Codrington, interactive product development manager at British Airways.

Each seat's interactive unit will also include a telephone, allowing travellers to phone home or book hotels before arrival, he says. Those craving a high-altitude flutter can look forward to airborne roulette while the aeronautical enthusiast can enjoy a bird's-eye view of the journey via a video link to cameras attached to either wing of the plane. Never has there been such a variety of ways to kill time.

The whole project is costing BA about £80m, and other airlines are expected to match this airborne mall mania. Already, Virgin has introduced its own interactive system, Arcadia, featuring the latest Nintendo games, and will soon introduce video gamblingpaid for by a credit card swipe. In-flight shopping conducted via an on-screen catalogue of more than 1,000 items guarantees delivery within 48 hours, anywhere in the world.

Airline travellers could be spending as much as £640m a year from the comfort of their seats by the end of the decade. But will they want to?

David, a middle-aged stockbroker, is unconvinced. He travels regularly between London and New York and says he often relishes the relative tranquillity the flight can offer. "It's the one time when I try to relax," he says. "The last thing I would want is someone ringing me up every five minutes, or the passenger in the next seat getting carried away with a Nintendo."

His scepticism is shared by Joe, a freelance travel writer. "The biggest problem with airline travel is boredom. But while this sounds like a good idea, it is bound to be sold at a premium. Passengers will be expected to pay."

Then there is the danger the airline's customer could lose the freshly tailored shirt off their back, by staking their entire credit limit on the turn of a virtual card.

But Juliet, an advertising executive, can see the potential. "If I was travelling with the kids, it could solve all my problems. There is nothing worse than flying with bored children. When they're small, often they can't even see the overhead screen. They whine and then everyone gets upset."

Steve Ridgway, customer services director at Virgin Atlantic, is confident that initial scepticism will be overcome. "When we introduced Nintendo on flights, we were convinced use would be skewed towards kids," he says. "In fact, many adults were playing, including business executives who only pretended to be working."

As for the dangers of gambling, he says, Virgin's gaming rules encourage prospective punters to regard it as "little more than a gentle flutter".

Mr Ridgway believes that entertainment systems such as Arcadia will be a common feature of most air travel in the near future. "It is an enhancement of our service, but it is also a future revenue generator," he says. "As fares decline in real terms, it's harder to make money out of just selling airline seats. Relatively small amounts of money spread across large numbers of passengers for certain `paid for' services will make a significant difference."

Chris Dickens, director of sales at the in-flight advertising specialist New Frontier Media, says: "The growth of satellite television proves people want more choice - and are prepared to pay for it. Airlines are offering personal choice, in the same wayas has already happened in cable and satellite multi-channel homes."

Whatever next? Following the demise of the smoking section, the arrival of a techno-free zone, perhaps? With the first interactive, multimedia aircraft taxiing along the information super-runway, just a quiet seat in the corner for me, please.

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