With more and more travellers carrying Bluetooth headphones and earbuds – from those sold by smartphone companies such as Apple, Samsung and Huawei to the latest noise-cancelling models of Bose, Sony, Sennheiser and co – airlines are starting to embrace Bluetooth for inflight entertainment.
After all, given a choice between airline-supplied headphones and their own devices, almost every flyer will choose the later: especially when it's a product they've personally selected and bought at a cost of hundreds of dollars.
It's not only that airlines are catching up to this trend – they're also cottoning on to the fact that in the post-COVID environment, most passengers will feel more comfortable using their own kit.
When United Airlines this week revealed plans to expand and modernise its fleet – not only adding 270 new Airbus A321neo and Boeing 737 MAX jets but upgrading its existing single-aisle fleet – a key plank was the revamped inflight entertainment experience.
Not only will every economy seat get its own video screen – something US airlines have been largely intent on removing over recent years – but they'll all be able to beam audio via Bluetooth direct to a passenger's own headphones or earbuds.
How do United and its tech providers plan to handle the potential clash of over 200 passengers attempting to temporarily pair their Bluetooth cans with their seat's own screen?
The most likely solution involves deliberately reducing the Bluetooth range of the IFE system, not only by winding back the power but reshaping the signal from 360° into a tight forward-facing cone with a roughly one metre range.
French aviation supplier Safran already does this on its Rave Ultra system, saying it has "cracked the code for congestion of Bluetooth audio" on aircraft.
Passengers see only a handful of nearby devices when prompted to pair their headphones with the aircraft's IFE system.
"Typically, only 20 airline-provided headsets can be connected at one time due to frequency interference," Safran claims. "Rave Ultra brings Bluetooth audio to every seat in the entire aircraft."
While some airlines have previously offered Bluetooth pairing in first and business class, United's tip-to-tail approach raises the bar for not only its US competitors but other carriers around the world.
Many seat-makers and IFE providers are already offering support for Bluetooth audio, and airlines are now more likely to tick that box when it comes to ordering new aircraft or signing off on extensive refit programs.