iFlight: The BA business plane that ditches its entertainment system for iPads

You know how it is: you like to have your iPad with you when you fly. Play some Where’s My Water? and SpellTower, read some books and check out a movie you downloaded from iTunes before wheels up. The only downside is not being able to read or play during take-off and landing, and the lack of an internet connection.

And when it comes to watching a movie, the plane’s seatback monitor, even if you’ve paid to travel in business, can be of a pitifully low resolution and rather uninviting on many airlines. Since you have your iPad with you, with its large 9.7-inch screen, you can angle it just right so the light from the window seat doesn’t bleach it out. But, then, that doesn’t have the latest films available.

British Airways is taking steps to fix the frequent traveller's plight. In some of its routes - notably its top-end London City to JFK flights - business passengers are offered the loan of an iPad, chock full of movies and TV programmes, to while away the onboard hours. Though the 64GB capacity is plenty for everyday use, BA is finding those blockbuster movies and TV shows fill up the machines pretty quickly, even though the tablet is configured to have content only, not a shedload of apps. So the iPad may not have all the movies that a conventional in-flight system offers but BA is talking about rebalancing things by reducing the TV content to boost the film space.

The system itself is good, though. It uses original iPads – later models have not yet been cleared for passenger use – complete with an adjustable case that works as a stand. So there’s no Retina display quality, but the original iPad and iPad 2 always had good screens anyway. And if you’ve never used one before (who are you?), staff on the flight will be happy to help you get to grips with it.

Not content with supplying its passengers with iPads for their viewing pleasure, BA has equipped its onboard staff with one, too. The purser uses it for the aircraft's manifest. So, instead of the long computer-paper print-out to check against, by updating the iPad, the current list is on the device. This is quick and clean. If, like us, your first reaction is to wonder what happens when the battery fails or someone drops it against the hostess trolley, then don’t worry, the paper version is still there as a back-up.

This iPad manifest can tell the purser which passengers are BA frequent flyers, and even what their next flight is, so staff can help with connection information, for instance. Since the iPad has safety manuals and destination guides as well, there’s a lot of information packed in along with the entertainment. It's part of what BA calls the Enhanced Service Platform.

The City to JFK flight also has internet connection. Virgin Atlantic has introduced connectivity on some of its services but the difference here is that you can’t make phone calls on your mobile. BA disabled these to spare you endless one-sided conversations beginning “I’m on the plane” going on all around you. You can send texts, though, and check your email, and surf the web on your laptop or mobile. In our tests, it proved reliable, easy to connect to and slow, though not unbearably so.

Currently this flight from London City to New York is the only one to equip passengers with iPads. It's a small aircraft, reconfigured to hold business seats only, and, since there are only 32 of the flatbed seats on board, it's something of a deluxe experience - like flying private but at the price of commercial.

London City is the best-kept secret of the capital’s airports. Check-in times are short (20 minutes, or 15 minutes if you have hand luggage only) to suit the time-poor. The facilities are fine, and the fact that you walk from the gate on to the plane saves time, too. But the shortness of the runway at the site means that the plane can’t carry enough fuel to take you all the way to the States. BA has thought of a way around this, you’ll be glad to know.

You fly first to Ireland, stopping off for refuel at Shannon. And if that sounds like a pain, it’s not. In the 45-minute refuel pause, you go through US Customs, thanks to the American staff based at the airport on a two-to-five-year tour of duty. This means that when you land at JFK, you’ve cleared immigration already and can swan off the plane and out of the airport without the lengthy wait that JFK invariably offers.

More BA flights will have staff and passengers equipped with iPads soon enough, though only in business, and other airlines are adopting tablet use too. Overall let’s hope this is the first step on the way to having screens that aren’t limited to seat backs. This could mean miles of cabling can be saved, resulting in lower fuel consumption. Win-win.

Now all we need is for airlines to drop their ban on electronics during take off and landing and we can be fully immersed in glorious digital entertainment from push back to touch down.

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