U.S. airlines bump up digital fun

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:

•Video. Perhaps the most applauded development is on-demand delivery, which lets users pause, rewind or fast-forward movies and songs. In the old system, movies were simply "distributed" from the server or played on tape. In overhauling its entertainment system in the last two years, Air Canada installed its entire fleet with on-demand capability. Lufthansa is undergoing a similar conversion.

Individual seatback monitors have also become the industry standard. Emirates has one of the largest screens — 10.6 inches — for coach seats.

Thanks to the expanding capability of the aircraft server, the volume of movies, songs and games is constantly growing. Several foreign carriers boast more than 100 movies, categorized in various genres targeted at customer demographics.

For instance, Lufthansa has added more Bollywood movies and other Indian content because it's "the largest carrier to India from the U.S.," spokeswoman Jennifer Urbaniak says.

•Audio. Similar to video, audio options have grown rapidly in recent years. Singapore and Korean Air each have hundreds of music CDs, accompanied by a create-your-own playlist.

With passengers increasingly preferring to bring their own music, Air Canada has installed a USB port that can be used to connect an iPod. Delta is working on a similar initiative.

•Other features. Video games are increasingly in demand as more people have PlayStation and Xbox game consoles at home. What started as an amenity with a few '80s-style arcade games, in-flight gaming in top-end systems includes more graphically rich, interactive games, such as The Sims and Super Mario Bros.. Using external cameras, several carriers, such as Etihad and Cathay Pacific, broadcast a bird's-eye view of the journey en route. Qatar Airways, Emirates and Singapore feature seat-to-seat text messaging for passengers to chat with each other.

•Future developments. Much of the industry's focus is now on in-flight Internet connections and e-mail. Several large carriers, such as Lufthansa, Qantas and American, have already specified their plans to introduce in-flight Internet this year. JetBlue and Air France are testing in-flight e-mail on a limited basis.