TV, movies, music: Which airlines offer the best in-flight entertainment?

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Coach-class seats with individual video screens on Northwest's A330 aircraft (Photo: Northwest)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 3, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Jessica Labrencis.

The quality of your flight depends greatly on which airline you choose to fly. If you're planning a long international trip, it's important to know which airlines will offer you a seat-back personal television, and which will have you peering over the heads of other travelers. And, if you don't have time to grab a snack before departure, you'll want to know if your airline offers complimentary meals and snacks.

Before you book your next flight, keep this breakdown of airline in-flight entertainment options handy. It can help you decide which airline to fly when the prices are similar.

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Television

If watching live television on an individual seat-back monitor appeals to you, JetBlue, Song, and Frontier have what you're looking for.

JetBlue is perhaps best known for its individual seat-back televisions that offer 24 to 36 channels of live DirecTV. The airline also offers complimentary headsets, and a premium headset is available at California's Long Beach and New York's JFK airports for $1.

Song also offers more than 20 channels of live television with its DISH Network Satellite TV. The satellite network includes several movie options, more than 20 channels of digital audio, and a video game system. Headsets are free for customers to keep.

Denver-based Frontier also offers more than 20 channels of DirecTV with individual seat-back televisions on many of its aircraft (specifically on Airbus 319s). However, Frontier charges $5 per flight to use the television (more if you change planes), which is payable onboard with credit card or cash.

Some of the major airlines (Delta, American, United) offer television programming on the main screen and on seat-back televisions (when available) through partnerships with major channels (for example, ABC, CBS, NBC); however, the programming is not live television.

Movies

If you're flying a major carrier, including American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, or US Airways, or low-fare carrier ATA, for a long domestic or international flight, you can expect to be shown a movie. American, Delta, Northwest, and United all offer individual seat-back monitors on some newer planes flying international routes.

Passengers flying Alaska and Midwest will need to plan ahead to take advantage of in-flight entertainment. Both airlines offer a handheld video-on-demand system called digEplayer. The digEplayer system is the size of a portable DVD player, and shows movies, music, some television shows, and destination information. Alaska suggests reserving systems at least 30 hours in advance, although a limited quantity may be available to rent on board for $10. Midwest introduced the program on some of its Saver and Signature Service flights in February, and systems will be available on most flights by April.

Most airlines encourage travelers to bring their own headsets; however, most also sell headsets on board for $2 to $5. Headsets on Alaska and United are free.

JetBlue recently began offering movies through a partnership with Fox Inflight. Movies are available for $5 on most flights. Flights to/from the Caribbean have access to movies for free.

Southwest is known for keeping prices low by not offering frills such as in-flight entertainment. However, the airline recently partnered with Movielink, a broadband video-on-demand service that offers downloadable movies. For $1.99 to $4.99, Southwest passengers traveling with laptop computers can download movies from Movielink.com before flying, and watch the movies during or after the flight. And, Southwest passengers will also periodically receive Movielink coupons and special offers.

Radio

Satellite radio is the new wave in in-flight entertainment. Though most airlines offer several music channels, travelers on airlines that offer satellite radio can take advantage of a wide variety of commercial-free music, talk radio, and news.

AirTran recently introduced XM Satellite Radio as its only in-flight entertainment option. The XM Satellite Radio offers more than 100 channels and will be available on all flights by the end of summer 2005. The service is free, but AirTran charges $3 for headsets (although travelers can provide their own). AirTran only accepts credit and/or debit cards.

JetBlue plans to offer XM Satellite Radio to all of its passengers by the end of 2005.

Leather seats

Some travelers equate comfort in coach with leather seats. Low-fare carriers JetBlue and Song both offer all-leather, all-coach planes. Southwest has been converting all of its aircraft to leather seats since 2001, and is expected to offer leather seats on all of its flights by the end of 2005. ATA and Spirit offer leather seats on some flights (ATA's Boeing 737s have leather seats and Spirit's newer Airbus aircraft have leather seats).

Food service

Food service options vary widely by airline. Some airlines, including AirTran, Frontier (on flights longer than 90 minutes), JetBlue, and Southwest, offer complimentary snacks and soft drinks (and $3 to $5 alcoholic beverages for travelers over age 21) on most flights, but do not offer meals on any flights.

Continental is the only major airline that has not replaced its complimentary domestic meal program. The airline still offers meals on many of its flights, both domestic and international, as well as beverages and snacks.

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