Apple’s iPad takes flight

Anybody who's set foot on a plane in the past two years would find it hard to argue against the iPad as a new wave for in-flight entertainment.

Apple's sexy touchscreen tablet is also becoming increasingly noticeable in airport lounges  and even the long lines for customs and luggage collection, especially at international airports where there's free wifi.

When you're stuck in a seat for upwards of eight hours at a time, what better bit of kit than the iPad or a similarly multi-faceted tablet?

(After all, who wouldn't want to quickly check in at Foursquare to become Mayor of Baggage Carousel #3 at LAX?).

In time, the iPad could be second only to the Sony Walkman in its role of personalising in-flight entertainment.

After all, before the Walkman we had books and magazines. And in the post-Walkman world portable CD and MP3 players simply digitised the experience, while tray-table DVD players never reached anywhere near the penetration of their music-minded counterparts.

When you're stuck in a seat for upwards of eight hours at a time, what better bit of kit than the iPad or a similarly multi-faceted tablet?

Being able to cue up your own choice of downloaded movies and TV shows, flicking through a digital magazine or disappearing for hours into a game: those are welcome alternatives to being locked into the aircraft's own video system.

In fact, looking back across scores of flights in recent years, I can't remember the last time I watched anything on an in-seat screen.

That's not as much about the airlines' choice of content as the low-quality screens with washed-out images and woeful sound.

I download almost all my in-flight viewing onto my iPad, so when I'm not using those airborne hours to catch up on work I'm catching up on assorted TV shows.

(Actually, I can remember my last in-flight movie: it was Casino Royale, specifically the Qantas-British Airways version which edited out Richard Branson's cameo appearance and the tails of some Virgin Atlantic aircraft.)

Airlines are also cottoning on the iPad as an alternative to their own in-seat systems.

Jetstar has already replaced its clunky video players, which were as big as the Bible and almost as old, with iPads preloaded with movies, music and games.

Qantas is going a step further with a system which wirelessly beams video and music to iPads from a mini-computer located near the cockpit.

Dubbed 'Q Streaming', it's being trialled on a single Boeing 767 that's criss-crossing the country until the end of this month.

Each passenger on the plane gets an iPad to play with. The tablets are locked into a special Q Streaming app which connects to one of five wifi access points dotting the interior of the cabin.

Using this on a recent Sydney-Brisbane flight I was impressed by not only the smooth performance of video playback but the app's clean design and effortless usability.

Juggling the iPad and your in-flight meal on the tray table is a challenge, however, and even a standard paid of iPhone or iPod earbuds delivers crisper and punchier sound than the Qantas-supplied headphones.

From the middle of this month Qantas will open Q Streaming to passengers' own iPads and laptops. An app for Android tablets and smartphones is also in the works.

Q Streaming is the first system of its kind in the world, but it won't be the last: Virgin Australia will debut a similar wireless iPad solution later this year.

Singapore-based start-up Scoot will forego conventional in-seat screens entirely when it launches in June, preferring the low cost and flexibility of iPads.

Are in-seat video screens on the way out, and are tablets like the iPad a better way to fly? Or do you still pack a paperback or a magazine when you travel?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

Twitter: @AusBT