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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

In-flight entertainment gets personal

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Live TV on my iPad from the plane.

Entertainment on airlines has evolved from a movie projected onto a bulkhead to embedded CRT screens to flip-down flat screens to in-seat video screens, all in just a couple of decades. But we may now have reached the apotheosis of airplane entertainment hardware: Everyone uses their own phones and tablets.

The last few years, many airlines have looked at the equipment their customers bring on board and have done the math—if many (or most) of the people on the plane have a better screen in their pocket than the ones you’ve got in chair backs, why even bother? An airline’s biggest expense is jet fuel, and ripping out all of those video screens and remote-control arm rests can save a whole lot of weight, and therefore fuel, and therefore money.

Our personal devices are almost always better than the stuff you’ll find on planes1. Even the most cutting-edge airline tech ends up feeling old after a year or two—the Virgin America Red system was amazing when it debuted, but these days it’s starting to become a liability. (And let me honest: It’s been ages since I’ve watched a movie on a seat-back screen, because I’ve already loaded my own favorite videos on my iPad in advance of the flight.)

I’ve seen the future of in-flight entertainment—several times, in fact, most recently last week. Southwest Airlines, a company that has traditionally offered zero in-flight entertainment (unless you consider zany public-address announcements and tossed packets of peanuts entertainment), now offers in-flight video on demand and live television for free to every passenger on some of its aircraft2.

A limited selection of Beats Music tracks are available via the service.

Southwest does this by piggybacking on its in-flight Wi-Fi system. Like many airlines, Southwest lets you pay to buy in-flight Internet access. But even if you don’t pay to connect to the ground, Southwest’s Wi-Fi network is still useful. Somewhere on board, there’s a streaming server with some pre-loaded on-demand content (including audio, via a promotion with Beats Music) and a connection to Dish Network’s live TV feeds via satellite.

Connecting is easy: Just find Southwest’s Wi-Fi and open your web browser. A captive portal will open and let you buy Internet access or just enjoy the in-flight entertainment. I was able to watch live TV on an iPad Air 2 with no trouble. The picture looked fine, albeit not in high definition. There were only about a dozen live channels, and they were a strange assortment. But, hey, live TV from a plane on my own iPad!

It’s an approach that makes sense for the airlines and for anyone who’s got a smartphone or tablet with them. The only problem is, what if you don’t have a smartphone or tablet? Perhaps airlines will allow customers to rent a device for the trip. I’m not sure. It would be a shame if in-flight entertainment was only available to people wealthy enough to afford a smart device, but we are also rapidly approaching the point where every device is a smart device.

A video-on-demand offering, streamed from a server on the plane.

But the payoffs in terms of fuel cost and tech infrastructure are going to be too strong for the airlines to ignore. And for most of us, even an older laptop or phone or tablet will be better than what most airlines have installed in their seatbacks.

There’s just one thing. When all these airlines rip out their old entertainment systems, they need to make sure there’s a power outlet or a USB plug at every seat. If you’re going to make us watch that in-flight movie on our iPads, the least you can do is ensure that our batteries aren’t dead when we reach our final destinations.

  1. Or in cars, which is why most of the automakers and in-car entertainment people will eventually punt and let smart devices control the experience via CarPlay or Android Auto.
  2. Southwest is far from the only airline to do this, but it’s the one I’ve flown on most often that offers the service, and it’s a stark contrast from Southwest’s no-frills past.

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