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In-flight entertainment: Which airline offers the best?

Every year, the world celebrates the holiday season by overeating, finding that perfect gift for grandma, and flying cross-country to visit family while stuffed into tiny economy seats on the cheapest airlines available. Air travel is more challenging than ever, what with soaring fees and flights crammed to capacity, but at least the airlines are investing more money in the in-flight entertainment, otherwise known as IFE.

Indeed, TV shows and movies are emerging as the best medicine for easing the pain of midflight misery.

Of course, IFE has been around for decades, but a multibillion dollar industry focused on the technology has emerged over the last ten years or so. Major firms such as Panasonic and Thales are creating complex systems, delivering entertainment that wasn’t possible even a few years ago.

Play it again, Sam

While experienced air travelers might think of IFE as a modern concept—a trend that began with the proliferation of cheap touchscreens and digital video—the basic premise actually dates all the way back to the 1930s. Airships such as the Hindenburg offered lounges, bars, and even a dining room. While piano bars on massive airships may no longer be the mainstay of aviation (dig the “Mad Man” era image below), IFE eventually evolved into movies projected onto the bulkheads of aircraft.

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1970s-era Boeing 747s included a groovy piano bar for swinging jet-setters. This was before the airlines treated even first-class passengers like livestock. Image: Boeing

TWA is credited as being the first commercial airline to show a movie in-flight in 1961, screening By Love Possessed, starring Lana Turner and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. Later in the 1960s, overhead black-and-white TVs were placed every few rows, and airlines began to offer in-seat audio, which was accessible only with a pair of incredibly uncomfortable pneumatic headsets. In 1988, Northwest Airlines used the very first personal seat-back screens in a system called Airvision, which offered six channels of video.

The early 2000s saw a massive evolution in IFE, with airlines like JetBlue providing live satellite TV on personal screens at no extra charge. Since then, airlines have been in a race to provide the most high-tech IFE solutions to their passengers. New systems are able to hold more than a terabyte of on-demand content, and push it directly to 17-inch high-definition seat-back screens. And in the near future, Panasonic systems may even be controlled by eye tracking and body gestures rather than the usual remote control. Some airlines are also eschewing seat-back displays as the sole IFE solution, opting for systems from Gogo and Row 44 that use on-board Wi-Fi to stream content to passengers’ personal entertainment devices.

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Another popular Boeing feature was this lower-deck cocktail lounge with available seating for 14 passengers, who reached it via a spiral staircase. Image: Boeing

Modern IFE systems also do much more than play movies. Nearly every IFE system will provide a live map of your flight’s progress (this is apparently one of the most popular features available). Virgin America even lets passengers order meals and drinks directly from the IFE system, eliminating the need for bulky service carts clogging the aisles. Internationally, many airlines provide several cameras mounted on the aircraft exterior so passengers can get a breathtaking view of their surroundings.

Finding the best IFE is a crapshoot

While most IFE systems run on proprietary Linux operating systems, some of the newest models are using Android instead. Panasonic, in fact, recently installed the first Android-based IFE system on Norwegian Air Shuttle Boeing 787s. Compared to proprietary systems, using Android allows for easier development of new features and upgrades. Finding out exactly where these new, high-tech systems are deployed can be a bit of a challenge, however. Booking the 3 p.m. flight instead of the 2 p.m. flight may be the difference between a robust IFE experience and nothing more exciting than a small bag of peanuts.

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The new Android-based IFE system on Norwegian Air follows Virgin’s lead by letting you order snacks from the seat-back in front of you. Image: Norwegian Air

“Entertainment—and the kind of entertainment airlines provide—is really important,” says John Walton, director of data at Routehappy.com, the only flight-search site to match in-flight entertainment with specific flights before purchase. “It’s all too common to get stuck with those half-dozen channels of looped video, with no pausing or rewinding, on your ‘personal seat-back TV.’ And, more so than any other amenity, it’s pretty hard for most passengers to figure out what they’ll get until they’re on board,” Walton says.

While personal IFE has become the standard expectation among passengers, it isn’t always offered free of charge. Many airlines like Virgin America and Delta will offer a free level of service, but keep new-release movies and TV shows behind a paywall. Some airlines offer movies free of charge on international flights, but charge on domestic flights, as is the case with Delta. At the end of the day, not all IFE is created equal, and passengers are in a better position than ever to pick a flight with the best option.

So which airline has the best IFE?

As a journalist who focuses squarely on commercial aviation and air travel, I’ve logged more than 100,000 miles on domestic and international flights in only the last year. I’ve personally tested every IFE system that I review below. In the following roundup, I’ve included only major domestic airlines that fly in the United States and abroad.

American: D+ 

With its older fleet of aircraft, American is behind the curve in terms of modern IFE—but it’s trying really hard to make a comeback. Most of airline’s fleet will make you feel like you’ve entered a time warp, with dingy, old CRT monitors on the ceiling showing recently released movies or NBC TV content. Thankfully, however, domestic flights with Wi-Fi offer streaming video via the Gogo Wi-Fi network. TV shows cost $1, while movies go for $4. But you won’t find prerelease flicks on American due to digital rights management concerns.

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American’s 777-200s have seat-back screens, but they only show looped video. Image: Jason Rabinowitz

The airline maintains a great Web portal detailing exactly what content will be on each flight, so there shouldn’t be any surprises. On aircraft without Wi-Fi or a built-in IFE system, American hands out a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 preloaded with movies to passengers in first and business classes—though only on select routes. Almost all wide-body aircraft on American have only overhead screens in economy. Boeing 777-200s, which fly some of the airline’s longest routes, have personal screens, but they display only looped video, including new releases and TV shows.

Yeah, it all sounds really archaic, but American has recently stepped up its game, and new aircraft deliveries—the Boeing 777-300ER (77W) and Airbus A319/A321, specifically—come with state-of-the-art, personal IFE systems. The system on the 777-300ER sports 9-inch screens in economy, and a whopping 15-inch screen in business. The systems also include a selection of games (though anyone who has played a game on their iPhone in the last five years will probably be disappointed).

Delta: B- 

Delta is the only carrier of the four major U.S. airlines that spells out—at the time of booking—exactly what type of IFE you should expect. Delta’s fleet is extremely varied, however, and the airline’s IFE options aren’t even consistent across identical models of aircraft.

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Select Delta flights include seat-back IFE. Image: Wikimedia

Some Boeing 757s have 18 channels of live TV; video on demand ranging from prerelease movies to select TV shows; and programming from HBO and Showtime. But other 757s only have shared overhead screens, while some may only have streaming video via Wi-Fi—so you really have keep your fingers crossed and get lucky on select routes.

Save for the 737, all other Delta narrow-body aircraft lack built-in IFE (ignore those armrest controls you might find on Airbus A320s, as they’re just relics of the old Northwest days). But on the plus side, Delta is offering movies and TV shows via the Gogo Wi-Fi network, if available, on most domestic flights. On international flights, Delta provides personal IFE across almost all of its entire fleet, with the exception of a few 767-300s. And the Airbus A330 fleet is currently being updated to a more modern system with larger screens.

JetBlue: C

As the first airline to bring satellite TV to the masses at 30,000 feet, JetBlue set the standard in the early 2000s. Since then, however, the carrier has been idling in place.

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Every JetBlue flight features 36 channels of DirecTV for free. Image: JetBlue

While every JetBlue flight features the same 36 channels of DirecTV—and, yes, there’s something to be said for consistency—the airline provides no on-demand options, and some of the older systems are a bit battle-worn. The TV selection is confined to basic cable and broadcast networks, so you won’t be watching HBO or other premium channels. But, hey, it’s free!

There are also several channels of looping recent-release movies, such as Pacific Rim and Man of Steel, that you can purchase for $6. Movies are free on international flights that leave the DirecTV coverage area. JetBlue will soon be upgrading its system to provide three times the TV channels (similar to what United offers), but won’t include on-demand functions, so you’ll have to watch whatever’s on basic cable at 3 a.m. on that red-eye flight.

Southwest: D

Southwest has always been marketed as the airline that actually cares about passengers, but IFE has never been in the company’s game plan—aside from rapping flight attendants. But this year, Southwest has finally started to experiment with a Wi-Fi-based streaming service with partner Row 44.

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Southwest doesn’t currently offer any seat-back IFE. But the planes sure are pretty! Image: Wikimedia

The airline introduced 13 channels of free live-streaming TV from networks such as MSNBC and Fox News, as well as free on-demand TV shows and movies for $5. The service is available on any aircraft that’s equipped with Wi-Fi, but that number still has a ways to go before it’s fleetwide. For those passengers without their own tablets or laptops, Southwest and Dish Network are loaning 600 iPads to passengers flying through three Southwest hubs at no charge. The iPads are available on flights between Chicago, Denver, and Oakland.

United: C+

The United fleet is a hodgepodge of randomness and unpredictability. The airline now features some 200 aircraft with more than 100 channels of live satellite TV and movies on most Boeing 737s and 757-300s, but not 757-200s. TV channels range from FX to NFL RedZone to the Tennis Channel. This feature is free for customers in first class, and ranges from $6 to $8 for economy passengers, or $5 if paid for before the flight.

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Image: United Airlines

Some aircraft in United’s Airbus A320 fleet have overhead screens, but they should be avoided if a better option is available. Most international United aircraft have personal seat-back IFE systems, but the airline’s Boeing 747s, which operate on long routes, are only equipped with dreadful overhead monitors in economy. Select Boeing 777s lack overhead or personal screens, but do offer streaming movies and content to view on your own device. Just don’t forget to charge it up before you go, as these 777s offer no power outlets in economy.

One unique feature that United brings to the table is “Channel 9,” an audio feed of the air traffic control radio frequency that the pilots hear. It’s great for figuring out why your plane just circled Cleveland for the fifth time. Channel 9 can be found on most international long-haul aircraft, as well as on the “p.s.” fleet running between New York JFK, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

US Airways: D+

US Airways lags behind every other major carrier in the United States when it comes to IFE. Although its fleet of Airbus A320 family aircraft is quite new, none of those aircraft were delivered with any type of built-in IFE. In fact, you won’t find seat-back screens, overhead screens, or even audio channels on most domestic US Airways flights.

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If you fly one of US Airways’ long-haul AirBus 330s, you’ll get personal IFE, free of charge. Image: Wikimedia

Much like American, US Airways does at least feature streaming video via Gogo, which is available on all Airbus and larger Embraer aircraft. But unlike with American, you won’t find a single power outlet on a domestic flight.

US Airways’ saving grace comes in the form of a fleet of long-haul Airbus A330s, which have personal IFE at no extra charge in all classes. The A330s offer more than 100 movie choices, ranging from new-release flicks to classics, TV shows including HBO, and audio channels. In economy, the few Boeing 757s and 767s left in the fleet have overhead screens and should be avoided.

Virgin America: A-

Flying Virgin is a unique experience in the United States—an experience that starts immediately upon boarding, with cool, serene LED mood lightning. Virgin’s IFE system is an extension of that boarding experience, and most first-time Virgin America passengers are usually wowed by the effect.

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Virgin America offers the best video offerings by far. Image: Jason Rabinowitz

Dubbed RED, Virgin America’s IFE is by far the most advanced and feature-packed of any domestic airline. Based on Panasonic hardware, RED features 18 channels of free live broadcast TV and basic cable, as well as a wide selection of paid movies and TV shows. RED currently features the entire first season of Netflix’s House of Cards for those of you who want to catch up before the second season begins.

Movies and TV shows are great and all, but RED is unique among domestic carriers in that it allows meal and drink ordering right from the screen. Click the pie button on the remote, and a full menu appears on the seat-back display. One swipe of a credit card, and your selection is delivered directly to the seat; you can open a tab for longer flights and pay before landing. Passengers can send fellow travelers a drink—which undoubtedly results in some awkward situations. Before sending a drink to a fellow passenger, you can even break the ice via seat-to-seat messaging using the tethered keyboard remote control.

Flying forward

It’s becoming clear that the future of IFE is trending toward wireless streaming over Wi-Fi. These solutions shed all the weight and wiring associated with seatback IFE, but still give passengers the entertainment they now demand. And as in-flight Wi-Fi becomes faster and more robust, it will soon become possible to stream video from subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu, giving passengers more choices than ever.

Seat-back systems will still have a place on the aircraft, however, as they’re an integral part of the premium cabin experience. It’s time to say good-bye to those distorted overhead screens, and hello to the future.

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