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Virtual reality poised to be the next great escape at 30,000 feet

(Getty Images/Digital Trends)

Escapism at 30,000 feet used to involve a little over-caffeinating or downing a couple mini bottles of wine, but with the proliferation of virtual reality, don’t be surprised if you see more and more passengers escaping to their own digital la-la lands.

“It’s all a matter of cost,” says Fred Lazar, an aviation analyst and professor at the Schulich School of Business. With VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive retailing at $599 and $799 respectively, they’re still out of reach for casual users. But it’s likely to see prices slip in the coming years. After all, DVD players went for over $1,000 in 1997 but within three years were free in Sony’s $299 PlayStation 2 and many laptops.

If (or more likely when) those prices come down, Lazar suspects airlines will take cues from the consumer market. 

Last March, Australia’s national carrier Qantas introduced a trial run of offering VR headsets for first class passengers. WestJet and Air Canada are currently offering Wi-Fi on board and renting out tablets on a limited basis to passengers, but no VR headsets — yet.

“Once the cost is low enough that you can charge a price where a certain number of passengers will pick up on it and you have content, then you’re going to get it in operation especially on the long-haul flights,” says Lazar. “Instead of little screens… iPads on planes, you’ll have people being able to pay a certain amount for various sets of virtual reality equipment and then have access to different types of programming.”

Lazar suspects trial runs, like Qantas’, will start with first and business class passengers, eventually becoming available to those in second class for a fee.

“They will find the price point that optimizes the revenues per flight,” he adds.

VR devices could help boost ancillary revenue – those add-on fees like bag fees, extra legroom or renting a tablet – for airlines, a realm that is already proving profitable. In the first quarter of 2016, WestJet pulled in ancillary revenue of $95.4 million, a 14.8 per cent increase from $83.1 million in the same quarter of the prior year and Air Canada’s ancillary revenue base climbed 16 per cent per passenger in 2015.

No promise the gimmick will last

Michael Planey, a strategic airline consultant and expert on inflight entertainment with Washington, D.C.-based H & M Planey Consultants, says he’s not convinced VR is the way of the future for in-flight escapism.

“It’s a fad, it’s the next 4K or 3D TV in that it gets a lot of pop in the consumer market right now but the reality of it in terms of economics is it just isn’t there,” he says.

Planey points out that it’s likely a publicity stunt for brands like Qantas, which was also one of the first major airlines to tout Wi-Fi on board.

“It generates a lot of positive publicity (continuing) the message that they are leading-edge tech companies, staying abreast of what the latest and greatest is for their consumers and passengers in flight,” says Planey. “But over the next four to five years you really aren’t going to see this become widely implemented.”

Where he does see a growth for VR tech is in premium airport lounges.

“You can use those devices to up-sell people on economy to business or first class by showing them the environment they could be in,” says Planey adding that it could also be utilized in partnerships between airlines and tourism marketers. “For a flight to Vancouver, you can sit back in the lounge and experience a bit of what it would be like to go out on a whale watching tour.”

Please turn your devices to airplane mode…

As for the rules, whether the devices are supplied by the flight or brought on by VR aficionados, neither aviation analysts see much in terms of rule changes apart from the status quo – set your devices aside during take off and landing.

In fact, Lazar suspects the introduction of Wi-Fi and tech will lead to an evolution surrounding in-flight rules for use of technology.

“The reality is, there’s no reason for any of those rules, I mean (many of us) have forgotten to turn off our phones during flights and never had any problems,” says Lazar. “Those rules are archaic and I don’t think you’re going to need them with virtual reality equipment onboard a plane – the rules will probably catch up to the technology that’s both on the planes and that people have access to.”