A flight attendant once confided in me that she called JetBlue flights "zombie planes" because passengers simply sat there for hours on end, staring at their seatback monitors, not talking, not fussing, and causing no trouble for anyone.
She loved it. And the passengers, of course, loved it too. Face it: cattle-class air travel is physically uncomfortable. Anything which helps you forget you're there is a plus.
JetBlue may have the most famous coach-class amenity -- their live, satellite television, complete with a program guide you can print off their Web site -- but several other airlines have also gotten the idea that if they can take your mind off the size of your coach-class seat, everyone will be happier.
Delta's Alpha and Omega
The ultimate example of turning up the volume on in-flight entertainment is Delta. Their "new product" is coming to all of their domestic flights more than four hours long by mid-2008, and it's phasing in right now with some of the longest flights first: currently all flights between New York-JFK and the West Coast have the new amenities.
Delta's new idea is actually borrowed from their now-defunct entertainment-heavy sub-carrier, Song. That puts seatback video screens at every seat with 24 channels of DISH Network live satellite television, 20 movies, more than 1,600 MP3 songs that fliers can choose from and 10 video games including poker, a trivia game and Bejeweled. That's enough to zombify anyone.
And yet, Delta's not stopping there. By mid-2007, they'll start installing iPod docks into all of those seatbacks, with the ability to charge iPods with dock connectors (third-generation or above), or play iPod music and video through the setback screen. The ultimate goal, Delta spokeswoman Katie Connell says, is to get the seatback video screens and iPod connectivity into every seat on every plane.
Some people bring their own entertainment, and Delta has a boost for them, too: Nintendo DS downloadable game kiosks at six locations in their Atlanta hub that let you wirelessly download demos of games including Brain Age, Elite Beat Agents, and Clubhouse Games. You have to bring your own Nintendo DS, of course. The kiosks came to Atlanta just before Thanksgiving, and Delta says they'll spread to other airports "in the coming months."
Of U.S. airlines, United and Continental also said they're installing the iPod docks. But United is only putting them in international first and business class. Continental said they're still figuring out which planes and seats the docks will go into, but they'll probably be only on long-haul, international flights, and only by late 2007.
Tune In, Turn Off, Hook Up
JetBlue's 36 channels of free satellite TV (on all their planes) and 100 channels of XM satellite radio (on their Embraer 190 jets) caused a few other airlines to start looking to the stars for entertainment. Frontier Airlines now equips all of their planes with a somewhat more limited menu, 24 channels of DIRECTV live television, including NBC, A&E, the Sci-Fi channel, and four ESPNs. They charge $5 per flight segment. North of the border, leading budget carrier WestJet has 24 channels of free, Bell ExpressVu TV (it's like what JetBlue and Frontier have, but with Canadian channels) and four pay-per-view movies for $5 each at every seat in most of their planes.
AirTran went with music instead: all 100 channels of XM radio, free at every seat. That certainly beats the hideous music loops of "airline radio."
Somehow, United didn't get that whole memo. While they offer 19 channels of what they call XM radio, it's prerecorded, canned music loops -- good old airline radio, just with smarter programmers.
TV and radio are taking off in the air, but Internet access doesn't seem to be doing so well. Boeing's Connexion service, which supplied Wi-Fi to foreign airlines including Lufthansa, El Al and the United Arab Emirates' Etihad Airways, is shutting down at the end of the year. The tiny bit of good news there is that it's now free to use until it shuts down -- so if you want to surf the Web all the way from New York to Abu Dhabi on Etihad's new nonstop, you're free to do so.
Lufthansa, for one, is hoping that someone picks up the Internet ball. "Lufthansa hopes to be able to continue to offer FlyNet in future and, therefore, is conducting intensive discussions with Boeing as well as several other potential providers. Meanwhile, as matters stand it cannot be ruled out that there will be a temporary interruption of the service as of January 2007," the airline said in a press release. The same holds true for Connexion's other customers; Boeing says the problem isn't that it wasn't popular on the airlines that carried it, just that they didn't feel they signed up enough airlines.
Emirates Airlines uses a different in-air Internet system, developed by the now-defunct company Tenzing. It lets you pick up e-mail, but very slowly, and you can't surf the Web. But it will stay online after January.
Cell Phones Go Live?
The next innovation will be the ability to use your cell phone on planes. Before you freak out, all of the proposed systems allow cabin crew to turn off voice calling during night flights or at other times they'd like to keep things quiet, restricting you to text messaging, e-mail and games. So far, low-cost European carrier Ryanair and long-haul carrier Emirates have said they're going to start turning on the phones next year, though calls will be costly -- on Emirates, they'll cost $5/minute -- and they'll only work with global GSM phones, which means Verizon and Sprint customers are out.
In the U.S., domestic company AirCell recently won an FCC license to provide cellular and Wi-Fi services on planes, but they haven't announced any customers yet beyond saying they hope to launch next year.
And Then There's Singapore Air
No discussion of airline amenities would be complete without talking about Singapore Air. For years, they've been the leaders at putting quasi-business-class luxury at the fingertips of coach-class passengers.
Their newest in-flight entertainment system, called "New KrisWorld," will be flying out of San Francisco and various other global destinations by the end of this year. With New KrisWorld, you can plug a USB computer keyboard, mouse and storage key into your seatback and do work in Sun's StarOffice office suite, including a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation program, without opening your laptop. The system also has movies, TV, and games, but the office software reveals that there's a real PC in your seatback. At that point, possibilities become endless.
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