Careening through the air 30,000 feet above the ground in seats that get smaller every day are too cramped to recline can be a brutal experience. To help us cope, airlines have evolved sophisticated on-demand entertainment in the form of games, movies, internet, and the occasional backrub. Here's a look at some of the ambitious ideas that got us there, the failures along the way, and concepts we might see in the future.
Luxury for your eyes only
In-flight entertainment has always been more or less synonymous with movies because they're a convenient and cost-effective way to placate passengers. Sure, in the early days, dating back to the short-lived zeppelin experiment, flying was treated as a luxury experience akin to flying in a fancy hotel, or a the very least in a floating train. But by the time commercial flight really took off after World War II, airlines were cramming passengers into crowded cabins much the way theater proprietors stuffed them into auditoriums. It seems only natural to show them a flick.
Of course, in-flight movies weren't always as easy as they are today. The on-demand flicks we watch today evolved through lots experimentation, a history of which that's well-documented in a paper from the Airline Passenger Experience Association. The earliest confirmed in-flight movie was a silent film called Howdy Chicago, shown on brief airborne jaunts around the city during the 1921 Pageant of Progress. The first in-flight soundtrack to a movie came a few years later, and was actually played by a live orchestra and beamed to an airplane over radio waves, since you can't bring a full orchestra onto a plane.
This theme comes up repeatedly in air travel, and particularly when we're talking about amenities beyond the basics: Only the bare minimum flies.
In the early years, huge, cumbersome 16mm reels were used to project feature films to airline passengers. The hulking celluloid was later supplanted by the conveniences of Super 8, which itself gave way to video. In the early 80s, a businessman had the idea that the tiny LCD displays he'd recently seen at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas could be used to give everyone in a plane their own private screen. These evolved into the touchscreens now serve as the centerpieces of the on-demand audio/visual/ gaming experiences you now find onboard any longer flight. When combined with the electronic devices we bring with us, and the occasional spotty internet access, our attention is completely consumed. In-flight shopping? In-flight magazines? Nah. We're all about in-flight watching.
The very friendly skies
Of course, we can only zone out so much given how uncomfortable those seats are. So why not a little hanky panky? Unfortunately, joining the Mile High Club on a long-haul over the Atlantic is still going to require equal parts courage and sneakiness. But that hasn't stopped plenty of fly-by-night charter services from cropping up to help satisfy people's fantasies
Today, Flamingo Air, a Cincinnati based carrier, serves up an hour in the air for you, your partner, a complementary bottle of champagne, and a "very discreet pilot," all for $425. The "official" Mile High Club website lists similar purveyors all over the country, some of which appear to be now defunct. There's even a Dutch escort service for those of you traveling in that socially permissive part of the world.
Sure, you land at the same airport you took off from, but at least you get to go all the way.
The A380 and unfulfilled promise
Even if in-flight entertainment seems relatively stable these days, it hasn't stopped people in recent years from dreaming bigger than what tin vessels can support. In April 2005, the double decker Airbus A380 took off after years of development, and several airlines started to make lofty promises about the fun we'd one day enjoy aboard the new planes.
Shortly after his airline's maiden A380 flight, flamboyant British billionaire Richard Branson announced that some of the newly purchased fleet would be outfitted with both gyms and casinos on board. Neither ever came to fruition.
In a survey of airline gambling history last year, CNN points out that the casino in the air is hardly a new idea. It's been tried in limited ways for over 30 years. That gambling has been explicitly illegal in United States airspace since 1994 hasn't stopped imaginative designers from coming up with new concepts for sky casinos.
As for gyms, fitness seems like a natural fit for a luxury airliner. Sitting on your butt for long periods of time isn't just boring, it's unhealthy. Unfortunately, there are just too many roadblocks. Considering that airlines are too cheap to let you fly with a checked bag for free, maybe we shouldn't be surprised that loading bulky equipment onto a plane doesn't gel with the efficiency needs of the contemporary airline business. But, hey, a least Virgin Atlantic's got instructions on an in-flight routine to help you stay fit without even getting out of your seat.
In the end, the biggest improvement we saw from the A380 came in the form of the very expensive suites, or semi-private seats that turn into beds so that flush business types can get some rest while on extra-long flights. And no, they won't let you get freaky in the cabins.
For a few years there, it was looking like the true future of in-flight entertainment was just helping you get to sleep. That's seeming less likely now. Just yesterday, Singapore Airlines stopped its 19-hour flight from JFK to Changi Airport, the longest in the world. And so far, Airbus has only delivered 144 of its mammoths. It's looking increasingly likely that the future of in-flight entertainment is going to have to think small.
The personal touch
All along, this problem has really been about making people more comfortable and reducing the physical and mental stress of flying. A little spectacle on the screen helps, as do comfier seats. What's not going to happen is anything too ambitious in the form of fun. No tennis on the wings, no gym, no beauty parlor. So how's in flight entertainment going to get better? It's going to get smarter.
In a recent paper, researchers Hao Uu, Ben Salem, and Matthias Rauterberg described a part framework for making inflight entertainment better, which is going to to sound very familiar to anyone who has used smart, adaptive internet services before. In short, future in-flight entertainment should use context awareness and user profiles to help serve up better stuff faster. The system should be flexible, responsive, and customizable.
That's a little abstract, so let's try to bring this high-flying entertainment concept back to earth. What the researchers are proposing is that on-demand content on airplanes should work much the way Netflix, Spotify, Xbox One, and Google recommendations work when we're at our desks or our couches. It'll be the same entertainment just better tailored to each of us. Less looking around for what you want, more finding it.
The real question is whether that'll even matter by the time it can be implemented at a broad scale. Now that we've all got smartphones and tablets, the key form of entertainment is Wi-Fi, something that doesn't weigh anything at all. It's getting to the point where you'd barely accept a flight that didn't have Wi-Fi connectivity. As it gets faster and more reliable, the best in-flight entertainment option is the one you have in your pocket.