I have seen the future of in-flight entertainment, and it is awesome.
If you’re like me, you may have had a love-hate relationship with airline entertainment options for much of your traveling life. There’s no question that watching a movie or two can provide a welcome distraction on long flights, especially overseas flights that can last half a day or more. Yet the viewer experience has always come with limited choices and frustrating inconveniences.
For years, travelers’ only option was to watch the single movie projected on bulkhead screens or overhead monitors throughout the entire aircraft, whether they liked the film or not. Listening to the audio required the use of cheap, uncomfortable, crummy-sounding headphones provided by the airline, sometimes at a cost.
The advent of seatback entertainment systems alleviated a lot of these problems, allowing individual travelers to select from a menu of programming to watch on a small personal monitor. But there were drawbacks to this, too: The images on those screens could be fuzzy, and the user interface could be clunky. And these seatback systems required a sizable computer unit to be installed at the base of each seating row, cutting into precious legroom or carry-on storage space.
Fortunately, the proliferation of smartphones and tablets aboard aircraft, as well as major strides in mid-air Wi-Fi technology, has created an elegant solution to those problems. New entertainment systems don’t require seatback monitors, overhead projectors or bulky computers. They allow passengers to access a library of programming over the plane’s wireless network using their own phones, tablets and computers — a concept known as “bring your own device,” or BYOD.
I got to experience the beauty of BYOD entertainment in December when I flew from Lexington, Kentucky, to Phoenix for a conference. The long segments of my flights there and back were with Delta, which has established itself as a leader in the BYOD space. The airline’s signature Delta Studio program offers a robust select of movies, TV shows, music, podcasts and other entertainment available for streaming. I enjoyed a movie and binge-watched episodes of a hilarious comedy that I don’t get at home. The content came straight to my iPad using the airline’s custom-built app and streamed in flawless high definition without any delays or buffering breaks.
Perhaps the best part of this was the cost: Delta Studio is free. Though there is a charge for accessing other web content through the plane’s Wi-Fi, I didn’t have to pay to join the network to use Delta Studio. There was no charge to watch the content either. Some other domestic airlines offer BYOD streaming entertainment as well but charge a rental fee for programming.
There is more great inflight technology coming down the pike, too. The first generation of airplane internet service was pitifully slow and maddeningly unreliable, but advances in air-to-ground networking gear now promise true broadband internet service in the sky, giving passengers access to data-intensive services like Netflix when they choose to purchase inflight internet. These systems have already been installed on some domestic airliners, and plans are in place to outfit many hundreds more in the coming years.
It has become something of a sport for travelers to complain about airlines. And there’s room for criticism in areas ranging from scheduling and pricing to ancillary fees and customer service. But I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and Delta deserves a lot of credit for delivering a sleek, diverse and enjoyable entertainment experience.
The future is advancing at an ever-faster pace, and I for one am excited to see what comes next.