/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

2011 US Airline In-Flight Entertainment Guide

June 28, 2011 at 10:33 AM | by | ()

Three cheers for in-flight entertainment! Hip hip, hooray! Hip hip, hooray! Hip hip, hoo...misses the days of crossword puzzle magazines and listening to your CD player on a flight? Not us! And thankfully, not the airlines either as the majority of US carriers engage in a race to see who can have the biggest seatback TVs or the fastest in-flight WiFi.

Like it or not, what the airlines offer can vary greatly, especially where movies or music is involved. Thus, in the interest of helping you to be the coolest and most informed traveler around, we've laid out exactly what to expect when you sit in your seat. Our annual guide (now in its third year) highlights domestic carriers, plus the bonus of Air Canada because they get around the US enough. Enjoy, travel happily, and let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Click Here to see a printable chart of IFE onboard the airlines

Air Canada

· Internet: Canadians can have in-flight wifi too, and Air Canada proved this when they introduced Gogo* WiFi service onboard flights between Montreal/Toronto and Los Angeles. They haven't yet expanded beyond these two routes, however, thought we're hopeful.
· TV: All of Air Canada's planes feature seat-back, touchscreen TVs throughout. You'll be able to tune into 300 hours of free entertainment including international movies and television shows in a range of languages with their enRoute system. Forward? Pause? Rewind? Yes, yes yes.
· Music: Air Canada's systems mainly go by pre-loaded CDs for international travel, so be prepared to listen to "Devo's Greatest Hits" and "The Finnish Brass Ensemble." You will find Satellite XM radio on many other flights, such as in Executive and economy classes in North America.
· Games: Yes, there is a small variety of games available on the seat-back TVs, but they only seem to work about 70% of the time, so don't put all your hopes on playing in-flight trivia.
· Bottom Line: Impressive for an airline from Canada (we kid, we kid). Seriously though, Air Canada packs a pretty solid punch in the entertainment area, especially with their wide, touchscreen TVs and WiFI experimentation.

AirTran Airways

· Internet: AirTran is only one of two airlines with fleet-wide WiFi (Virgin America is the other), and they use Gogo* in-flight as well.
· TV: Nope. AirTran is a low-cost carrier through and through, and they've not done anything about television or movies.
· Music: Although there's nothing to watch, there's plenty to listen to. AirTran has 100 channels of digital commercial-free music, news, sports, talk and entertainment with XM Satellite Radio onboard every plane. We recommend station 24—Radio Margaritaville—if you're vacation-bound. See the full station listing here.
· Games: None aside from whatever crossword book you impulsively bought at the airport.
· Bottom Line: For a low-cost carrier, AirTran isn't looking too shabby. They get brownie points for being the very first airline with fleet-wide WiFi, and their XM radio channel selection almost makes up for the lack of TVs. Their merger with Southwest Airlines is not predicted to effect any of AirTran's IFE.

Seatback TVs, clockwise from top left: JetBlue, Virgin America, Air Canada, Alaska Airlines' digEplayer

Alaska Airlines

· Internet: Alaska is moving full speed ahead with installation of Gogo* WiFi on their planes, causing some antennas to be planted in the remotest northern wilderness just so you can update your Facebook status over Anchorage. If you're flying to/from or within Alaska, you even get a reduced Gogo rate of $4.95. As of right now, they've only got three more planes to connect and then Alaska Airlines will officially be an airline with fleetwide WiFi. Yippee!
· TV: The name of the game here is digEplayer, a little handheld device you can reserve and rent for $6-$12 before your flight. Note that you must reserve it at least 24 hours in advance to guarantee one (do so here) and it's only available on selected routes. When it is, you'll find around 11 movies, a slew of TV shows, destination guides, and even Gogo WiFi access (the latter for an additional $7.95 charge).
· Music: Music also comes from the digEplayer, and it has channels for Top 40, Pop, R & B, Alternative, Rock, Country, Jazz, Classical, and Broadway tunes.
· Games: None.
· Bottom Line: Wow. Way to go, Alaska Airlines! You've come a long way baby, and now you've even got Gogo WiFi? We're tearing up with joy. The digEplayer situation however is super annoying; we'd rather pay to rent a real Tablet PC than some doohickey.

American Airlines

· Internet: American runs with Gogo* in-flight WiFi, and all Boeing 767-200 aircraft and select MD80 and 737 aircraft are equipped. Currently American is testing new Gogo technology that could allow passengers to stream content from an onboard database straight onto their own devices. Stay tuned for more news on this before summer 2011 is out...(hint hint: we've played with it, and it's awesome).
· WiFi Cheat: Check right here within 24 hours of departure for the final word on whether or not your plane is connected.
· TV: The biggest news recently from American is their bringing Samsung Galaxy Tablets onboard for First Class flyers to play with. If you're not that lucky, you could still score a handheld personal media players with 7" screens—like DVD players—in premium classes on 767s. Loaded onto it are 28 feature films and 15 hours of pre-loaded TV and news. 777s are lucky enough to have seat-back TVs in all classes and 757s have seat-back TVs in business class but fly anything else and you'd be wise to prepare for dreaded mainscreen movies.
· Music: On most flights, you'll find 12 channels of music, but this is bumped up to 16 American Airlines-curated audio channels on 767s and 777s. Travel in First or Business with the personal TV system or Samsung Tablet and enjoy 30-50 preloaded CDs in addition to the 16 AA channels.
· Games: A small and unimpressive selection, only available with the personal entertainment system found on select flights, in First and Business classes. Of course the Samsung Galaxy Tablet blows this wide open for online gaming.
· Bottom Line: American is the one to watch for the rest of this year and into early 2012. They just introduced the Samsung tablets, their WiFi is spreading and they're gearing up to launch Gogo's new streaming content product. Get excited.

Continental Airlines

· Internet: Continental has a problem, an indecision problem. First they were going to install LiveTV WiFi, then they switched and hooked up 21 Boeing 757-300 with Gogo. Now they're back to the LiveTV thing, even though the LiveTV WiFi doesn't yet exist. They've hoping 2012 is the year to get over 200 of Continental's domestic 737 and 757 planes on WiFi with LiveTV.
· TV: TV on Continental totally depends on what plane you're flying. For 777s: All classes enjoy 150 movies and 300 TV shows, but BizFirst has a 10.6" screen while economy makes do with a 9-incher. For 767s: BizFirst gets 16 channels of video programming while economy gets only 8. For 757 and 737s: DirectTV with 100 channels has been installed on most of the planes, which will be free for BizFirst and $6 for economy. Check out what's on during your flight here.
· Music: For 777s: 3,000 songs with jukebox function. For 767s: 20 channels of audio programming. For 757s: 2000 songs.
· Games: For 777s: 25 games plus Berlitz WordTraveler. For 767s: 10 games. For 757s: 20 games with Berlitz and others like blackjack, solitaire, hangman and chess.
· Bottom Line: One of the most confusing IFE offerings ever. Nothing seems for sure and they had a rough time deciding on a WiFI provider, so they're a bit behind. Hope to god you're on a 777 for some of the gaming and music action.

Delta Airlines

· Internet: Delta is getting dangerously close to the magical goal of fleetwide WiFi, made all the more impressive by the fact that their fleet is crazy huge! Right now, Delta has 569+ planes running Gogo, for 1,800+ connected flights. You'll find Gogo* In-Flight WiFi on all of their A319s, MD88s, MD90s, 737s, 757s, 767s, A320s and—believe it or not—they've begun installations on regional jets. The world's first WiFi-equipped regional jet hit the Delta skies just this month.
· WiFi Cheat: To check if you're flight will have WiFi, head to the My Trips section of Delta's website and know that all cross-country flights are connected. · TV: Mostly mainscreen entertainment, but occasional flights have "Delta on Demand" with 18 satellite networks, HBO series, and 28 films. This seat-back system with a 7" display can be found on most domestic flights 4+ hours in length and always on main international routes.
· Music: On most flights, Delta offers 16 channels of audio entertainment, including KCRW picks, a dance music channel called "Delta Pride," and even Sesame Street's top picks. If you're lucky enough to get the Delta on Demand system, you'll have your choice of 4100 songs across 14 music categories.
· Games: Only available with the Delta on Demand system, but when you've got it, you've got it: Bejeweled, Bookworm, Chess, Poker, Solitaire, Galaktor, interactive trivia, and more.
· Bottom Line: What they lack in seatback TVs, Delta has been making up for in spades with their speedy WiFi installation. They know that there will come a day when travelers could care less if there's a TV installed or not, because they've brought along their own gadgets to watch their own content over the internet. That said, their overhead movie choices are less than inspiring (Eat, Pray, Love and Just Go With It? Come on).

Frontier Airlines

· Internet: Frontier signed up for Gogo* in-flight WiFi last year, and they planned to have 32 E170 and E190 aircraft logged on by the end of 2010, but it just hasn't quite happened yet. Fingers crossed they'll connect before 2011 is over.
· TV: If you're flying on an Airbus plane, you'll have a seat-back TV. The bad news is that, if you're flying in coach class, you'll have to pay $6 to get the 24 channels of DirecTV access on it.
· Music: Music comes from the pay-to-play seat-back system as well, so maybe just stick with your own iPod.
· Games: Nope, sorry Charlie.
· Bottom Line: Frontier may now hand out free warm chocolate chip cookies thanks to last year's merger with Midwest airlines, but their in-flight entertainment is still nothing to write home about. The extra charge to use the TV in front of you is extra annoying, too.


· Internet: Sad Face. JetBlue hasn't progressed with their in-flight WiFi (or rather, lack of) in years. Utilizing their own LiveTV system, JetBlue has had one plane flying the connected skies: BetaBlue, launched in December 2007. We've used it once and it took some time to get up and running, and even then the free service was prohibitive with many restrictions: access to the web is limited to Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Messenger, Gmail, AOL, Hotmail, Windows Live Mail and Amazon. Nonetheless, JetBlue is determined to revolutionize the industry once again, with their $30 million dollar+ LiveTV WiFi system, predicted to have the fastest and highest capacity network in the skies when it launches in (hopefully) 2012.
· TV: Here is where JetBlue really shines. Seat-back TVs on all flights show 36 channels of live, DirectTV programming, The Travel Channel, a Broadway channel, "Times on Air" content from the New York Times, like a billion ESPN channels, the NFL Sunday Ticket and free movies on international routes ($6 per movie on domestic). See what's playing on your flight here.
· Music: Plug into 100 channels of XM satellite radio, but bring your own headphones or be prepared to pay a couple bucks to buy some.
· Games: Nope; it's back to the crossword puzzles for you.
· Bottom Line: What Jetblue lacks in in-flight WiFi (for now), they make up for in TV. We've even been on a flight where some TVs malfunctioned and although no one fussed, everyone was emailed a $15 certificate for future travel; it's automatic! Right now though, all eyes are on the future of their IFE as they prepare for the LiveTV WiFi-to-beat-all-other-WiFis.

If that little green light is on in the cockpit, you've got WiFi on Southwest

Southwest Airlines

· Internet: Southwest is the real rogue in the battle for who's got the best in-flight WiFi. They use Row 44, not Gogo and not LiveTV. Eventually Southwest wants to have fleet-wide WiFi, but for now you'll just have to look for the "WiFi Hotspot" decal inside your plane. Once connected—access is a flat $5 no matter your flight length or device—you can access iTunes for free. It's a little thing SWA is calling "inAirtainment," and though you'll still have to purchase your own iTunes songs and TV shoes, there may be a playlist freebie in there from the airline.
· TV: Nada. Guess you'll just have to hope that the rapping flight attendant makes a cameo.
· Music: No way, Jose.
· Games: Nothing here. Bring a book onboard like the olden days.
· Bottom Line: Southwest is known more for their cheap fares and cattle-call boarding than for in-flight entertainment, and with good reason. They've barely got any! Still, they're positive about their in-flight WiFi plans, so that's a plus. We also love the flat $5 WiFi pricing.

Spirit Airlines

· Internet: Nope! And no plans for it, either.
· TV: Also no, but if they did you can bet that you'd be paying extra to use it.
· Music: Negatory.
· Games: You're kidding, right?
· Bottom Line: Spirit Airlines, known for their long list of extra fees including charging for carry-on and checked bags and now ever boarding passes, offer nothing. If you expect nothing from your flight or have low expectations in general, then Spirit is the airline for you.

United Airlines

· Internet: Very rare, but they have some Gogo* WiFi installed on 757s. All of their "p.s. premium service" transcontinental flights between New York (JFK) and both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) have it, but we'd really like to see more.
· TV: All classes enjoy pre-programmed shows on select flights with seat-back systems, but in these cases, lucky First and Business class get additional access to an expanded movie selection plus HBO, Showtime and AMC series like Dexter, Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men.
· Music: Plug into 18 channels of XM radio brought to you by Microsoft Zune, although it's pre-programmed and not satellite. Even children can tune into XM Kids, which features tunes from kid-approved bands like the Wiggles, Yo Gabba Gabba and They Might Be Giants. For aviation geeks, there's the infamous Channel 9, which (if it's turned on), allows you to eavesdrop on pilot and ATC radio transmission. Drool.
· Games: Sorry, charlie.
· Bottom Line: We're not excited for United's IFE and not we're not underwhelmed. Basically it's exactly what we'd expect from United. You'll get the bare minimum entertainment in coach and slightly more in better classes on more popular routes.

US Airways

· Internet: Believe it or not, US Airways has all of their A321 aircraft hooked up with Gogo* in-flight WiFi, but they aren't any plans we know of that go beyond that.
· WiFi Cheat: Check out the routes with WiFi on a map here.
· TV: Mainscreen movies on transatlantic and Hawaii flights. If you're flying overseas on an A330 in any class, you'll find yourself with a rare seat-back TV. Seat-back TVs are also found in the upper classes onboard international flights using 757s and 767s.
· Music: Plug into 10 channels. That's all, folks.
· Games: You wish. Time to invest in a travel Scrabble kit?
· Bottom Line: The most entertaining part of a US Airways flight could be the tray-table advertising. Otherwise try not to let your eyes wander around the plane much—they're not known for the being the cleanest or newest jets, so perhaps just stuck your nose in a good mystery-thriller paperback until touchdown.

A tv in First Class on Virgin America

Virgin America

· Internet: Yes, all planes have been equipped with Gogo* WiFi since May 2009. In addition, all seats have a 110V power outlet, ethernet and USB plugs.
· TV: Virgin's RED system equips each seat with a 9-inch touchscreen. Programming is satellite TV with the DISH network. 25 Pay-per-view movies are also available for $8 each, food can even be ordered from the screens, fellow passengers can chat with you over the system, and you can shop selected SkyMall products. There are rumors that VX is looking to make their TVs even larger...so stay tuned.
· Music: Choose from 3,000 MP3s, make a playlist to get you through the flight, or just tune in to 20 streaming radio channels like "Sounds of San Francisco."
· Games: Open-source video games like Doom and knockoffs of Bejeweled and Asteroids are at your fingertips. There are more than 11 games, in addition to the seat-to-seat messaging and shopping fun.
· Bottom Line: Right now, Virgin America is rock solid. They can check off each category with flying colors, and they're prepping to advance their in-flight entertainment technology even more. You didn't hear it from us, but there's talk that one day passengers could be playing live in-flight trivia and games against passengers on other airborne Virgin America flights. Insane! And to think: some people still own walkie-talkies.

Multi-tasking on Gogo In-Flight on Virgin America

* Gogo In-Flight WiFi Pricing:
$4.95 on flights up to 1.5 hours; $9.95 on flights between 1.5-3 hours; $12.95 on flights over 3 hours
$29.95 for 30 days of unlimited Gogo access on flights for a single airline
$39.95 for 30 days of unlimited Gogo access on flights, any airline with Gogo // $34.95 if pre-purchased
$12.95 for 24 hours of unlimited Gogo access on flights for a single airline
For a mobile device: $4.95 on flights 1.5 hours or less; $7.95 on flights between 1.5-3 hours; $19.95 for a month of unlimited access on a single airline

Click Here to see a printable chart of IFE onboard the airlines

Got an in-flight entertainment note, anecdote or question? Drop it in the comments to share with everyone.

[Photo credits, in order: Air Canada, Jaunted, Steven Frischling for Jaunted, Jaunted, Jaunted]

Archived Comments:

Off to Kinkos...

...kinda want to laminate this.

I always forget that Air Canada is so good with the IFE -- too bad most of their flights are in, uh, Canada


is that prince william on virgin america?


Prince William is on Virgin America, trying to live a normal life in coach! He must of chose that plane for the access to Bejeweled.


Seem to have fun. I wonder who took the photo?

Very cool..

Wow, that's great to see a Canadian airline listed here, since I'm a canuck myself. It's good to know they are keeping up with quality of flights. Hmm, makes me wonder what airline Prince William was on with the royal couple's recent tour down this way.