Ryanair doesn't do frills, but it is willing to bet that passengers fancy a flutter. It's a sign that the airlines are feeling the pressure to keep us entertained in the sky. Mark Rowe has a look up their sleeves

Ryanair is exploring two options - gambling on board and gambling on its website. "The latter of these is slightly closer," said a spokesman. "The technology for real-time transactions on board isn't quite there yet for the in-flight games." The potentially lucrative nature of the move was described by the spokesman as "a real wallet phenomenon", and he added that the airline had no problems with any ethical questions that might arise.

Another no-frills airline, easyJet, carried out trials earlier this year, exploring in-flight entertainment including in-flight gambling in the form of scratch cards. But other airlines are lukewarm. Emirates and British Airways both said they would not consider such a move. A spokeswoman for BA said gambling would be incompatible with the "family-oriented" image of the airline's world traveller entertainment system.

Virgin Atlantic has explored gambling, but has been constrained by strict rules in the United States that forbid such activities in its airspace. Instead, a croupier offers gambling lessons for Upper Class passengers on the airline's Las Vegas route.

Industry experts are ambivalent about gambling. "An airline would have to be wary about what kind of losses a customer could sustain and still maintain a relationship with it," said Niall McBain, chief executive officer of Spafax, which develops in-flight entertainment systems for several airlines, including BA, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. "People love a flutter but if there's a technical hitch at 30,000 feet when the passenger is £8,000 up you've got something of a challenge."

Ryanair's move has highlighted the importance of in-flight entertainment to the airlines' efforts to persuade passengers to fly with them. Emirates, which won the 2005 Skytrax best airline entertainment award, has recently launched ICE, a system with more than 500 channels, every No 1 musical hit since 1952 and the ability to send text and email messages.

And although the airline eschews gambling, it has been quick to tap into the predilection of its passengers for games; its trivia quiz is hugely popular and allows passengers to see on their screen where competitors are sitting.

"In-flight entertainment has moved up the list of important things that passengers take into account, but it remains one of a matrix of many things," said Mr McBain. "Airlines move with the times but there's less of the 'me-too' approach than there was. These systems are multi-million-pound propositions. Why do they do it? People are on long flights in a confined space - it's a good way to pass the time and keep people relaxed and entertained."

Spafax anticipates significant changes in the world of in-flight entertainment. "We'll see increasing levels of personalisation," said Mr McBain. "That has important implications for airline marketing as it will allow personal profiling of your customers.

"People will also be able to surf the web and work at their seat. They'll also be able to use their mobile phones, though that may be a sensitive issue because you won't want someone shouting down their phone in the seat next to you.

"In the future, you can see people using small hand-held devices offering a mix of entertainment. There will be more systems where you have personalised choice ... The Holy Grail would be to show the Ashes Tests or a cup final live - that's not there yet, but it will come."

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