While almost every nanosecond of the flying experience presents potential hassles -- from figuring out true pricing when searching for fares to dealing with chaotic luggage pick-up when you finally get home -- the few hours in the air can actually provide some of the least stressful waking moments of our lives. It's usually relatively quiet and working is almost impossible, which leaves you plenty of time to just sit there -- and watch some movies.
Of course, on some airlines this is a more pleasurable (and dependable) experience than others. The larger and older an airline's fleet, the more variation in the in-flight system you will see from one trip to another. Younger and smaller airlines like JetBlue and Virgin America are not dealing with a fleet of aircraft of very differing ages and models that came together over time through a series of purchases, mergers and the like. Folks who travel on "legacy" airlines can sometimes encounter two or three different aircraft, with multiple configurations, on the same route. Going out you may have a dedicated seat-back system; coming back you may have to peer over the top of the seat in front of you to see the screen; then on your next flight, there may be no screens at all. This makes it much harder for a legacy airline to offer a consistent in-flight entertainment system.
That said and understood, here is our roundup of the best economy-class in-flight entertainment offerings in the air right now, as well as some information about what you might encounter on popular airlines that don't make the best-of list, but do move a lot of passengers.
Virgin America has been voted the airline with the best in-flight entertainment system a few times now by various publications and airline associations. It's no surprise: No other airline shares a name and ownership with an entertainment company. If these guys got beat by, say, a company named WestJet, it would be a bit embarrassing (although WestJet does a pretty good job, as noted below).
Really, it blows everything else away -- here's an overview of the system. It has it all, with an unusually easy to navigate touch-screen system, right down to a seat-to-seat chat system that allows you to message friends and family in other parts of the plane. In-flight Wi-Fi, movies, satellite TV, a music library, games, digital shopping and Google Maps are offered -- not to mention the ability to order food and drink whenever you want, and power outlets in every seat.
The whole show takes place on a nine-inch screen that is just about the same size as an iPad, and everything except some first-run movies is included in the cost of your airfare on all flights. No one else comes close.
Shortly after its launch a little more than a decade ago, JetBlue acquired the company LiveTV, and subsequently installed DIRECTV on all JetBlue planes, with a dedicated screen in every seat. A couple of years later, the airline added satellite radio, TV shows and movies to the offerings. For a discount carrier, this was a bold move.
While a number of other airlines have copied (or tried to copy) JetBlue's in-flight offerings, JetBlue has stayed the course very steadily, and currently offers free in-flight seat-back TV's with 36 channels of DIRECTV, 100 channels of SiriusXM radio and first-run movies for $5.99 per movie on domestic flights (these are free on international flights). JetBlue also offers Wi-Fi on a limited number of aircraft, and is working to get the system installed across the fleet. During this beta period (through June 2014), basic Internet is free, with a high-bandwidth plan available for purchase.
Unlike most of the other airlines reviewed, I have not flown with Singapore personally, and in fact I have only one close friend who has. I suspect many of our readers have not and will not either, but its award-winning in-flight entertainment program is worth mentioning. Their KrisWorld system is pretty advanced; including all the now-expected movies, audio, TV programs, games and radio programs, on some planes the system even has a USB port so you can use the system as a personal media player, photo viewer or PDF reader. Some aircraft have up to 80 movies, hundreds of CDs and even audio books, and feature iPod and iPhone connectivity, all offered in a dozen different languages. The system offers language learning programs from Berlitz, business and cultural tutorials, Rough Guides, and live connection, gate and baggage claim information. If you end up on a Singapore flight, comment below and tell us about it!
With a distinctly Canadian modesty, Air Canada offers a great in-flight entertainment system that is solid across the board and free for all flights. Since 2004, Air Canada has quietly been offering a free seat-back entertainment system, including more than 100 music albums and playlists, flight path information, up to 150 movie choices on flights, more than 200 TV shows, including kids' TV, and a selection of audio books and podcasts. Since 2009, Air Canada has offered all this from gate to gate, without turning off the system for take-off and landing.
I know no one at all who has flown with Emirates, but they win as many awards as Virgin America does. On most routes, you can choose from more than 1,500 channels of movies, TV shows, music, and games, as well as world news direct from BBC, current flight information and even "great views from our aircraft-mounted cameras" -- nice. Select flights also offer Wi-Fi plans for smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Due in part to the fleet diversity issues noted in the intro above, Virgin Atlantic's system is not quite as hip as Virgin America's, but it holds its own with a decent selection of TV shows, as well as movies and games. Children in particular are treated well, with a goody bag (only on flights departing the UK) and dedicated kids' channels. The system is included in the cost of the airfare in all seat classes, so everyone is happy.
Lufthansa offers a free in-flight system on most planes that features up to 50 movies, 40 TV programs, a dedicated sports channel, 30 radio channels, 200 music CD's, a selection of games and business books and language courses, with menus in several languages. They also have "KidsFun" programming that includes movies, music and audiobooks for kids.
The Canadian airline WestJet has a similar system to JetBlue, with live satellite seat-back TV in every seat on most Boeing 737 flights, plus pay-per-view movies on flights over 2.5 hours. On flights serving the U.S., Caribbean and Mexico, WestJet offers tablets rentals with stored programming in place of live seat-back TV. You do have to buy a headset as you board the plane (or bring your own, as many folks do these days -- although you never know about plug compatibility), but you can use it on any future WestJet flights.
Icelandair offers a heap of movies, TV and music for the cost of the headphones, and you can keep the headphones so your next flight is free.
Like WestJet Alaska Airlines offers a standalone "digEplayer" that is a bit like an iPad and features more than 75 movies, TV shows, music and destination information, which you can reserve in advance for $8 - $10 (Internet access provided by Gogo Inflight will cost you another $1.95 - $39.95). There is limited availability, so you could get shut out, and to reserve a player you have to register with Alaska, so it is a bit of an ordeal just to watch a movie. Despite the price and the possible hassle of reserving and making room in your seat for the player, the approach is interesting, so I wanted to include it here.
When I wrote American Airlines to ask for help figuring out the entertainment offerings across its vast and varied fleet, a rep had to send me six Word documents to cover everything, whew. On the whole, American offers free access to NBC TV and 18 American radio stations, plus a pay system starting at $4 of seat-back TVs on its newest and refurbished planes, and overhead screens on its older jets.
Delta is trying hard to offer some variety, with overhead movies and short programs on some flights and seat-back screens with on demand TV and movies on other flights. Everything is on a pay-per-view basis, though movies on demand are free in all cabins on international flights and on flights to/from Hawaii and Alaska.
Talk about a mixed bag of offerings -- the Continental and United merger created something of a Frankenstein monster of aircraft and system configurations. On some aircraft (mostly international) passengers have access to a seat-back on-demand system with movies, TV, music, games and language classes. Some domestic aircraft offer DIRECTV, while others offer overhead screens. Headsets are free but access to DIRECTV is not, costing $5.99 for flights under two hours and $7.99 on flights longer than two hours.
Have you had a different experience with any of these airlines? Did we miss something? Have you seen a better in-flight system than those we listed above? Let us know in the comments!Go Anyway,
The Independent Traveler