In-flight entertainment to your tablet, phone, may be coming to WestJet passengers

Ross Marowits, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL – WestJet Airlines plans to test a new entertainment system next year that will allow passengers to use their tablets, computers and smart phones to access in-flight television and connect to the Internet, CEO Gregg Saretsky said Tuesday.

A prototype is expected to fly some time in the first half of 2013. The new system could eventually lead the Calgary-based airline to do away with seat-back systems and shed about 1,200 pounds (544 kilograms) from each aircraft.

The current system plays 24 live TV channels and four channels with stored content. However, it also rents out pre-loaded tablets for about $10 on some flights as an interim solution.

The new permanent entertainment system will allow passengers to hook up their own devices to a network with about 1,000 movies, Internet connectivity and a few live channels for sports and business.

Saretsky told the Scotiabank transportation and aerospace conference that WestJet is still working through the business model, including potential charges.

WestJet (TSX:WJA) also has to decide whether have the entertainment system communicate with towers on the ground or a second satellite downlink. He said the airline has already had discussions with vendors.

Meanwhile, Saretsky said the addition of premium economy seating will change the airline’s egalitarian philosophy by giving some passengers refundable tickets, priority boarding, onboard amenities and more leg room.

He wouldn’t say how much additional revenue WestJet expects to realize but pointed to U.S. carrier Jetblue, which experienced a $150 million bump from a similar change.

The additional leg room in premium economy will be accommodated by shrinking space in some economy rows by one inch.

Saretsky said focus groups that saw a prototype of the changes couldn’t distinguish the difference and new seat technology with thinner seats will give passengers the illusion that space has actually increased.

On the Toronto Stock Exchange, WestJet’s shares gained four cents at $18.64 in morning trading Tuesday.