More airlines are rolling out high-end in-flight entertainment products in the economy cabin, ushering in an era in which passengers have greater control and selection of movies, songs and video games.
Airlines worldwide spent $1.4 billion on in-flight entertainment hardware last year, research firm IMDC says. It's projected to increase to more than $2 billion by 2012. The result: monitors in individual seatbacks, digital transmission for clearer picture, on-demand delivery that lets passengers pause and rewind, hundreds of movie and song titles, games beyond Hangman and Sudoku, seat-to-seat texting and even e-mail.
"In-flight entertainment functions are certainly climbing on the scale of reasons why people choose airlines," says Neil James, a marketing executive of Panasonic Avionics, an in-flight entertainment system developer.
Christopher Shaffer, a sales executive in Indianapolis who flies monthly to Europe, says he deliberately chooses Northwest Airlines' nwa Airbus A330s departing from Detroit because of their upgraded entertainment system. "On an eight-hour flight, it is a huge convenience to be able to pick the way you would like to spend your time."
Most travelers and analysts agree that foreign airlines have been more aggressive about adopting the latest and fanciest features.
"Basically, there is no U.S. airliner that provides entertainment equipment in economy class comparable with foreign airliners," says Herkea Jea, an executive in Fremont, Calif., who frequently travels internationally and ranks Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic as among the best.
Other carriers consistently cited by travelers and experts for having advanced systems include Korean Air, Etihad Airways, Air Canada, British Airways and Australia's Qantas.
Lori Krans, spokeswoman for Thales, an in-flight entertainment developer, says it'll be "three to five" more years before U.S. carriers — saddled by stiff competition and belt-tightening — can effectively match what's available in the coach seats of their top foreign competitors.
Traveler Jea says he recently flew on a United 777 uaua flight and found only nine channels of video and about 20 audio channels: "The system condition is not good. I can say that on almost every flight I have been on, there was something wrong with the equipment. Either the video image was not there or the audio channel produced no sound."
JetBlue jblu, which has stood out among domestic carriers for its satellite TV and radio programming, is eliminating free headsets as of June 1. Passengers will have to bring their own or buy one at the gate.
Still, there have been recent signs of improvement. Most large U.S. carriers, such as Continental cal, Delta dal, American amr and United, are upgrading their existing fleets, particularly in premium-class cabins. "There's not one domestic carrier not making significant upgrades," says James of Panasonic Avionics.
Virgin America, a U.S. carrier started last year and linked to British businessman Richard Branson, features its highly touted in-flight entertainment system, Red, which has many of the features found on foreign airlines, such as movies on demand and in-seat messaging. But it comes with a cost: The airline charges $5 to $7 for its movies.
Among other in-flight entertainment developments: