Then & Now: Pass the Popcorn

Then & Now: Pass the Popcorn

Inflight entertainment began modestly—with a silent movie. In August 1921, while their Aeromarine Airways Model 75 amphibian circled over Chicago’s lakefront, 11 passengers were treated to Howdy Chicago!, a short film put together by one of the city’s booster clubs.

“This was more a promotional stunt than a regular offer,” says Daniel Kusrow, an aviation researcher who runs a Web site about Aeromarine. Still, the World Airline Entertainment Association, which serves as a forum for inflight products and standards, considers it the birth of its industry.

Forty years later, TWA became the first airline to screen a movie on regularly scheduled service. Its choice of film in 1961, By Love Possessed, starring Lana Turner and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., was “risqué for that day,” says John White, editor of Avion, the association’s magazine. (The plot is based on an extramarital affair.) Throughout the 1960s, other U.S. airlines, along with a few foreign carriers, began adding movies.

Early systems were “bolted on” rather than integrated into the airplane, says Mike Sinnett, systems leader for Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner. Today’s inflight entertainment runs through the same digital equipment, computer storage, and high-speed cables that the crew and ground support staff use to check the health of the aircraft’s systems.

Emirates and Singapore airlines, which both fly the Airbus A380, have placed first and second, respectively, in the World Airline Awards’ ratings of best inflight entertainment. Singapore’s system has a 10.6-inch seatback screen in economy class and a 23-inch one (and better headphones) in first class. Passengers can choose from 100 movies, 180 TV shows, 20 radio channels, and 700 music CDs. Or, they can thumb-play any of 91 video games.

Some airlines—including American Airlines’ 767s on long-haul domestic flights—are testing more nimble, portable entertainment devices that flight attendants roll out on a cart.

While some passengers bring content with them, others rely on the airline to provide it, says Sinnett. “We’ll probably see the push to carry a massive amount of content so passengers can choose what they want at any time,” he says.

The World Airline Entertainment Association envisions that over the next decade, airliners will provide live satellite TV, personal cell phone calling, high-speed Internet service, and the capability for networking with colleagues or even group gaming. One option that probably won’t make it: wraparound visors of the type used by virtual-reality gamers. Says Sinnett, who studied and dismissed such devices, “When people wear goggles on a moving platform, they tend to suffer motion sickness.”

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