MEET THE MAKERS • August 2023
In this next instalment of our Meet the Makers series, chatting to the men and women who know the secrets behind our premium in-flight experience, Club Correspondent Emma Blackmore meets Darren Stevenson for a closer look at those seatback screens – and finds out how we decide what’s on them
If there’s one man who thinks being 35,000 feet in the air shouldn’t ever be a limitation to entertainment, it’s Darren Stevenson. Here at British Airways, if there are screens involved, you can bet Darren – our Digital Services Lead – is, too. His mission statement is simple: “Whether you’re livestreaming an event or browsing the internet, you should be able to do everything that you can on the ground, in the air.”
Question is, how do you make that a reality? It starts with data. “From the beginning, I manage the product from a research and insight perspective,” Darren, from Liverpool, begins. “We need evidence of what our customers want, or dislike, and what we need to do to stand out above the rest.” Focus groups, therefore, are formed to tune into customers’ desires and the content selection process truly begins.
“We’re constantly thinking about ease of use, reliability and whether the interface is intuitive enough”
“Once business cases for the next in-flight entertainment (IFE) selection are made, we’ll get to inspecting screen sizes and power – just two unsung elements of the customer experience,” Darren continues. “Then we’d work with our developers to create the GUI, that is the Graphical User Interface, which is what you interact with to navigate the system to get to the content you’d like to watch. We’re constantly thinking about ease of use, reliability, whether the GUI is intuitive enough and the importance of accessibility features, too.”
Of course, IFE content isn’t just films and TV shows. Darren looks after the moving map (a favourite of many of us), audio, games and the Wi-Fi portal, where you can access our High Life magazine.
Darren was snapped at British Airways headquarters near Heathrow T5
Ever laughed a little too loudly on a plane? You wouldn’t be the only one. In fact, comedy is our most popular genre, and our content is refreshed every month to launch you into a new fit of giggles. Our new Panasonic IFE system has more than 1,500 choices of movies and TV shows, almost all in more than 12 languages, with 120 new film releases every year. Our audio selection provides a further 1,000 songs, radio shows and podcasts. We have doubled the amount of IFE content available on board since the beginning of the year and we continue to invest in new, modern and playful content.
More than 70 box sets and 20 franchises are available in the air, with classics such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Big Bang Theory, Indiana Jones and more. “These classics are so great to keep, as we know our customers don’t normally have the time or get the chance on the ground to be able to dig into a whole box set,” Darren says. “The system is designed to have something for everyone, but we’re also trying to do the unexpected.
“Our partnership with Paramount+ allows customers to watch content they may not have a subscription for”
People expect to get on board and watch Downton Abbey and other traditional ‘Best of British’ content, but there are wider customer demographics to meet. For instance, we have a partnership with edutainment company Rebel Girls, whose stories will be on board from September. Rebel Girls promotes and advocates for women from diverse backgrounds and inspires them to become what and who they want to be through audio and books, which really aligns with our brand values.”
Darren adds: “There has to be something unique about your content offering and, as part of our British Originals campaign, we are committed to showing content that’s as diverse as Britain is. One of our strategies is driving for more short-form exclusive content, while our partnership with Paramount+ allows customers to watch content they may not have a subscription for. Our ambition is to become a market leader for inflight entertainment. We will soon introduce more accessibility features to the IFE interface, as well as adding voiceovers and subtitles on our IFE promotions so they can be enjoyed by all our customers.”
And while there may be some filters in place for what is and isn’t permissible, Darren argues that IFE ultimately steers liberal. “We don’t take a political stance. We allow customers to make their own choices and offer a wide range of content, taking into consideration surroundings on a flight, too. We will warn customers if a piece of content may not be suitable for children and put BBFC ratings on there, so we can be mindful of and responsible for every type of traveller on board.”
An IFE strategy is more than just content selection. In some instances it can also involve new hardware installation on the aircraft. It really is a cross-departmental team effort to get a film or podcast onto a screen in the back of your seat.
“When the new Panasonic system was first introduced in 2016 on our Boeing 747 fleet, we worked with many teams around the business, including engineers and developers, who helped us with the software, as well as our cabin crew colleagues, to ensure they had training on the new systems to help customers on board,” says Darren, who knows how important it is for cabin crew to be clued up – after all, it’s where he started his career with us 18 years ago.
Premium IFE is all in the hardware, Darren explains: “Customers travelling in Club World can watch the latest content on 17-inch high resolution screens and First customers have access to larger personal screens, as well as higher power charging stations.”
Talking about the future of in-flight entertainment brings out a bright smile from Darren. More live streaming (such as the King’s coronation back in May), refreshing content even more regularly, running content in 4K and HD to fully utilise the hardware, offering the biggest new releases straight from the cinema, and reducing the time from cinema to aircraft (which currently stands at three months) are all in the works.
Audio is a key development, too. “Customers want the unexpected when it comes to audio: they want podcasts, new radio, conversational and experimental adventure – everything you’re in the mood for when you’re flying,” Darren enthuses. “We’re also looking into spatial audio, as we have a partnership with Headphone for Sounds that provides binaural sounds – that is, sounds that have been created for ‘both ears’ and make you feel as if you’re in the same room as the performers.”
And the future is interactive and personalised. “We’re also looking at being able to interact with content – so pairing with your device, making your own playlists and watch lists, sharing your screen with somebody else or streaming in the lounge and continuing on board.” If Darren had to describe the future of IFE in one word?
Aisle or window?
Window… because I’m curious!
TV shows or movies?
TV shows. I personally haven’t got the patience for movies.
Go-to TV show?
Either anything really cheesy, like Real Housewives, or an intense psychological drama.
Last destination you flew to?
Go-to in-flight drink of choice?
Champagne, if someone’s treating me.
A destination you’d love to visit?