Digital World Insider: Something Entertaining in the Air

Remember the days when you had to watch some sappy Richard Gere B-movie just to pass the time on a flight? Those days aren't necessarily over--plenty of airlines still show bad movies on tiny screens. But a select group of airlines is pioneering new ways to entertain passengers.

According to Jack Evans, spokesperson for the Air Transport Association, "Airlines are trying to differentiate their services. Some do it by the type of in-flight entertainment they offer; some do it by meal plans."

That got me thinking about what airlines are doing to keep passengers entertained. So I did some digging to find out what various airlines are doing to make flying as pleasant as possible.

Direct From the Sky

"For me, the most interesting thing is what JetBlue inaugurated with its live satellite feed," says David Stempler, president of the ATA. "That means I can watch CNN live on air. You really get the feeling you're never out of touch."

With almost 40 channels, including Bravo, CNBC, Comedy Central, ESPN, the Food Network, MTV, and Nickelodeon, JetBlue delivers live DirecTV satellite programming to every seat on the plane. (For a full list of channels, see the airline's list.)

In addition to free satellite TV, JetBlue has teamed up with XM satellite radio and will begin offering around 100 channels of audio content sometime this year. JetBlue has also launched a new Fox Entertainment Group-based in-flight service, which shows Fox movies, Fox TV, and other content--all for a $5 fee.

Similarly, Delta's two-year-old "high-style, low-fare" Song airline is offering 24 channels of Dish Network satellite programming, including NBC, CNN, E, The Movie Channel, and Travel. The airline also offers 24 channels of MP3 audio programming, the ability to create individual playlists from its programming, ten pay-per-view movies (at $5 a pop), as well as video games and a trivia game that allows you to compete against other passengers--all delivered to your own LCD screen on the back of the seat in front of you. Frontier Airlines offers 24 channels of DirecTV programming, although it costs you $5 per trip leg for the privilege.

Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to ride any of these satellite-TV-equipped airlines (although I'm contemplating a trip--for "research"). But others I've met who have traveled on these airlines swear by them.

"I'd trade first-class service on any other airline for a coach flight on JetBlue any day of the week, period," says blogger Chris Pirillo. "I've only flown cross-country once with it, but wound up tuning into odd programming, as it was a red-eye both ways--Nick at Nite, Headline News, late-night movies."

"My son and I flew JetBlue to and from Boston [from Oakland] and we loved the DirecTV in economy class," says Carrie Shepherd. "He watched cartoons the whole time and I watched HGTV. He didn't make one peep for the entire flight and was completely satisfied. I would've liked more channel options, but I have to admit that HGTV kept me entertained as well."

Wireless at 30,000 Feet

Just last month, Boeing added a streaming television service that lets you watch four channels on your laptop. That's on top of its high-speed wireless Internet service, Connexion by Boeing, which launched in May 2004, and is now available on Lufthansa, SAS, ANA, Japan Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and China Airlines.

Recently I got the chance to ride in a Boeing 737 laboratory jet and test out the new video service, which just made its debut on Singapore Airlines last month. When you sign onto the Connexion service, you get the option to view video from BBC, CNBC, Eurosport News, and either MSNBC (if you're flying in the United States) or Euronews (if you're abroad). Okay, so it's not VH1 or Comedy Central. But at least you can catch up on headlines and not be out of touch for 10 hours at a time.

As you would expect, performance isn't perfect. A Boeing representative estimates that passengers receive average speeds of 150 to 200 kilobits per second. At these speeds video was somewhat jumpy, freezing for a split second every now and then, but audio was smooth and clear. So while you may not want to watch TV for too long, you can at least keep it streaming in the background while you catch up on your e-mail.

For more about Boeing's Connexion service, including its new streaming television feature read "Wi-Fi in the Sky."

Movies at Your Service

Ever find yourself on a plane, watching "From Justin to Kelly" on a tiny screen five rows in front of you, just out of sheer boredom? It's okay: Bad movies happen to good people all of the time. (In fact, my husband and I are still traumatized by an in-flight showing of "Autumn in New York" years ago.)

While some airlines are still offering standard movie dreck, others are doing all they can to offer you choices. Rather than force everyone to watch the same flick, for instance, some airlines feature personal screens, with a number of different movies to choose from--even in economy class. My sister is a frequent traveler and vows by Singapore Airlines: "They have the best in-flight entertainment, even in coach. You get your own personal screen, and it's on-demand. I love them!"

As you've probably figured out, on-demand means that you get to watch a movie whenever you want, rather than having to wait for the "next showing," as you must do with some airlines--even if you have your own personal screen. It also means you can pause a movie when your meal comes, fast-forward, or rewind if you missed something. Northwest Airlines also features an on-demand movie system for some of its international flights.

In addition to on-demand movies, Singapore Airlines also offers dozens of video games, including a bunch of Nintendo titles (including Pokemon and Super Mario Bros Deluxe), and even some multiplayer games that pit you against other passengers. And for those of you looking to get smarter on long-haul flights, in June Singapore Airlines just started offering Berlitz Word Traveler, an in-air interactive language program that lets you learn Cantonese, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, or Spanish.

Alaska Airlines offers another alternative to "Autumn in New York"-type disasters: the DigEplayer. For $10, passengers can rent one of these units--think portable DVD player--and choose from a number of movies and TV shows to watch at will (DigEplayer's site claims 20 to 30 programs, but I counted only 12 on Now Showing list on its Web site). I've never rented a DigEplayer, but I've been on flights where an entire family of kids has been quiet thanks to the nonstop entertainment it provides. In my book, that's almost as valuable as having one in front of me.

Of course, other domestic airlines are just trying to stay in business; offering additional amenities isn't on their radar. Apparently, snack-snarfing flyers are chomping so many free pretzels that the cost is driving some of them closer and closer to the financial edge, and they need to cut back. So for those of you who find yourself traveling on those airlines, I suggest stocking up on snack cups at Costco. Oh, and bring a good book--a nice long one.

In Other Digital News

  • For those of you who spend weekends ogling the plasma screen TVs in Best Buy, now may be the time to buy. A plasma no longer has to cost the same as a car--although some still do, of course. Check out our comparison review of eight low-to-mid-priced plasma TVs.
  • If you're a fan of the PC game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, then you've probably heard the recent hubbub surrounding it. The game's rating was updated after someone released a hack that unlocks sexually explicit content. To find out more about the controversy, read "Grand Theft Auto Stalls."
  • Still confused about the upcoming battle over the next-generation optical-disc standard? It's okay, so am I. For the latest news on the topic, check out PC World senior editor Melissa Perenson's July "Burning Questions."
Cathy Lu is a contributing news editor for PC World.
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