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WestJet unveils new in-flight entertainment plans featuring live TV

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WestJet Airlines plans to begin removing all seatback television monitors in its aircraft starting next year as it adds a new entertainment system that will allow passengers to access TV, movies and the Internet with their electronic devices while in the air.

The Panasonic satellite system will be installed on one aircraft later this year for testing and be expanded over the next few years as it replaces seats with slimline alternatives and installs USB and power outlets.

Passengers not travelling with their own device will be able to rent one to access a mix of free and paid content.

WestJet (TSX:WJA) currently offers live television on its flights and says the new system will offer more options and enable passengers, especially business travellers, to use their time in the air more productively.

The Calgary-based airline said 75 per cent of its passengers carry their own electronic devices and have indicated they want to be able to connect to the Internet mid-flight to check on email and do work.

"We've had the seatback televisions for a long time; it's time for us to start looking forward at being a little more proactive with our technology for our guests," spokeswoman Brie Ogle said in an interview.

WestJet said Friday that it hasn't yet determined the fees it expects to charge, but the move will generate additional non-fare revenue for the airline.

In addition to improving the in-flight experience, airlines are looking at every opportunity to increase revenue.

WestJete currently generates $8 to 10 per passenger in ancillary revenue, well short of other North American carriers where the average is at least $20, said Walter Spracklin of RBC Capital Markets.

The analyst said the new WiFi system could boost per passenger revenues by $5, adding $30 million in annual pre-tax operating earnings (EBITDAR) depending on the system's costs.

It will also enhance the carrier's new Plus offering and tiered pricing strategy, he wrote in a report.

Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) said it has been testing an in-flight WiFi on a limited basis for some time but hasn't yet made a final decision.

"It is a significant investment, so we want to be sure to do this right," spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur wrote in an email, adding there is no timeline to rollout a new system.

She said on-board WiFi equipment is getting lighter and better all the time but the airline has to consider whether a ground-based or satellite-based system would be best on long, international flights over water.

While Air Canada has learned a lot about Internet usage from the trial effort, the technology is changing so rapidly that it has not committed to any system, she added.

In the interim, the country's largest airline has invested in upgrading its entertainment system because of its importance to customers.

Passengers on Air Canada Rouge, meanwhile, can already access a catalogue of movies and entertainment to play on their laptops and Apple devices and some units can be rented onboard.

However, the service isn't yet available for Android devices and it isn't a WiFi service, so it does not provide access to the Internet or live programming, the airline says.

Meanwhile, Air Transat said its A330 redesigned planes have since 2012 offered free programmed entertainment including movies, TV and musical variety programming. Transat A.T. (TSX:TRZ.B) wouldn't say if it was considering a WiFi-based system for the future.

Follow @RossMarowits on Twitter

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