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While some people within the industry believe seat-back entertainment is on its way out — hello, American Airlines — others think it’s still full speed ahead. Panasonic is on the optimistic side, having announced a brand-new in-flight entertainment (IFE) system, dubbed “NEXT” at the Aircraft Interiors Expo earlier this month.

Panasonic’s system isn’t limited to the typical “take your seat and watch some movies to pass the time” experience. Yes, there will still be movies — lots of movies — but there will be so many more options available to passengers and the airlines on which you fly.

“We look at a number of trends in the industry and demographic areas. We look at them not for just innovation but what they can deliver to us and our customers. We’re looking at how those trends can be delivered to our customers,” said Panasonic’s Senior Director of Corporate Sales & Marketing, Jon Norris. Beginning in 2020, NEXT will have “the most comprehensive and integrated ecosystem in the industry.”

What is there to integrate, you may be wondering? Panasonic wants to tackle the passenger experience from start to finish. Imagine having your flight attendants knowing what you like to eat and drink on board your flight, bringing your favorite cocktail prior to departure without even being asked. How about the ability to sync your wearable fitness devices to your screen? If you’re willing to share this data with the airline, the cabin crew would be able to know when you’re too warm, or in need of some hydration. A flight attendant could offer you a glass of water, without you having to ask.

Apart from being able to serve loyal customers more intuitively, airlines could benefit from NEXT monetarily as well. “What really exponentially strengthens the value of the platform is the ecosystem,” said Norris. “We have probably the broadest, deepest, most comprehensive ecosystem in the industry, in terms of all the various elements that we can layer onto that platform.” The ecosystem could consist of advertising, sponsorship, pay-per-view, onboard services, duty-free purchases and even Wi-Fi.

Norris said one of the trends being evaluated by airlines is hyper-personalizaton. This is viewed from both the points of view of the airline and the passenger. “If what you want to achieve for your passengers is this ‘internet of me,’ because everyone wants to be valued, everyone wants to be recognized as an individual, with the enablers we have in the ecosystem, we can enable functionality to welcome back passengers by name, or make available their pre-ordered playlist, their pre-ordered meal.” These things can be done from home or even in the lounge just prior to boarding.

The digital ecosystem of Panasonic NEXT
The digital ecosystem of Panasonic NEXT.

Panasonic is planning to make a suite of APIs available for airlines to come in and add their own functionality. Carriers would be able to message specific passengers aboard the flight in the instance of a trip disruption. For example, your flight is late and you will miss your connecting flight, the airline can let you know that it’s re-booked you on the next flight. NEXT is both modular and scalable, allowing airlines to pick and choose the features they want to offer to their customers.

During his product announcement speech, Norris said, “Just because one American airline [American Airlines] has decided not to have seat-back IFE on its [737] MAX, that doesn’t mean seat-back IFE is dead. That’s complete garbage.” Coincidentally, American is a Panasonic Wi-Fi and IFE customer on many of its long-haul aircraft. But Norris was onto something in his assertion that passengers would prefer to have IFE options in their seat, even if they choose to purchase Wi-Fi and watch content on the devices they’ve brought onboard.

NEXT is slated to first become available in 2020, aboard the Boeing 777X. As of the end of March, Boeing has delivered 1,333 777s, and has orders for 306 of the 777X, including 150 from Emirates and 60 from Qatar Airways. Norris disclosed one of those 777X customers would be installing 4K video screens — another Panasonic product — but would not share which airline had selected them.

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