Flights of fancy entertainment

From smartphones and tablets to notebook PCs, business travellers love their tech.

And it's becoming increasingly more important to wedge those gadgets into your carry-on baggage as airlines start to shift away from in-seat video screens and beam content directly to your device.

In the same way that many companies have ditched desktop PCs and encouraged staff to bring their own laptops to work, airlines are embracing a BYO approach to inflight entertainment (or, as the boffins call it, IFE).

Forget those tiny, low-quality screens fixed into the seat or swinging up from your arm rest.

The new wave of inflight fun is beamed directly to your tablet, laptop or even smartphone from a compact computer near the cockpit via a handful of WiFi hotspots located throughout the plane.

It's the same wireless technology as you'd find in your local cafe, only there's no Internet – just hundreds of hours of movies, TV shows and music for you to tap into.

Sky-high viewing

Qantas and Virgin Australia already hand out Apple iPads and Samsung Galaxy tablets to passengers on selected aircraft.

The Red Roo took line honours in outfitting its Boeing 767-300ER fleet – used for domestic and short-run international flights such as Sydney to Honolulu – with iPads hooked up to its Q Streaming inflight network.

But Virgin Australia has leapt ahead by beaming content to passengers' own devices, provided they're running the necessary free Virgin Australia apps.

(To avoid being caught out, load up the necessary software before you head to the airport for your next flight – check the Virgin Australia website for details and download links.)

Although only a handful of Virgin's Boeing 737-800 jets are wired, or rather unwired, the airline intends to extend the system to the majority of its domestic fleet by year's end.

A Qantas spokeswoman tells High Flyer that the airline is aiming to broadcast video and music to BYO devices "including iPads, iPhones and laptops" around the third quarter of this year.

Game on

But why draw the line at movies? Passengers could soon be able to battle their fellow flyers via computer.

"Games is something we are looking into," says Olivier Krüger, senior vice-president at Lufthansa Systems, which developed the inflight WiFo systems trialled by Qantas and Virgin Australia.

"At the end of the day, we are building an Internet in the aircraft," Krüger tells High Flyer. "You can have a chat room where people can come together and agree to play a game, then you simply log on with your seat number."

Another reason not to leave your tablet behind: visitors to Virgin Australia lounges can download free digital editions of more than 2300 newspapers from around the world straight onto their iPad or Android tablet to read during your flight, later in the day or pretty much any time.

Lighter planes, smaller fuel bills

The airlines' motivation for moving from fixed screens to BYO devices is, of course, all about the bottom line.

It's cheaper to roll out a new aircraft without hundreds of screens and several kilometres of wiring. It's also lighter, which means less fuel is burned.

Lufthansa Systems says that eliminating IFE hardware can lead to weight savings of around 450kg on a Boeing 767-300, which potentially reduces fuel consumption by about 20 tonnes per aircraft.

All the same, using your tablet or notebook instead of a plane's own screen isn't without its drawbacks.

You'll want a USB or AC power socket at your seat to keep the battery topped up, and many older laptops struggle to manage more than a few hours' life between charges.

And there's no room to keep watching a video when the meal service lands on your tray table, unless you can precariously tuck your tablet into the seat's magazine pocket.

On top of that, there's also the dubious ergonomics of looking down at a screen perched on your tray table for hours on end, as opposed to a seat-back screen set at eye level.

Have you sampled the Qantas or Virgin Australia streaming media systems? Or do you still prefer to watch your own choice of videos downloaded onto your tablet or laptop before your flight?

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

Twitter: @AusBT