100 Years in the making: The evolution of inflight entertainment

Viasat looks back on a century of IFE as international live TV service takes off with JetBlue

movie on airplane

The first in-flight film was shown on an Aeromarine Airways flight during the 1921 Parade of Progress Exposition in Chicago. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Viasat's new international live in-flight TV made its debut in August on board JetBlue’s first transatlantic flight.


JetBlue passengers flying between New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and either London Heathrow or Gatwick Airport can now access a variety of real-time televised content via their seatback screens and stream unlimited entertainment services on their own mobile devices, thanks to Viasat's high-capacity satellite network.


Viasat reached this key milestone exactly 100 years after the first-ever in-flight movie was projected on to the front cabin wall of an Aeromarine Airways amphibious aircraft, during a sightseeing flight over Chicago.


From those early days of grainy, silent, one-size-fits-all, black-and-white movies to the infinite high-definition, high-quality choices enjoyed by today's passengers, it has been quite a century in the world of in-flight entertainment (IFE).


"It's completely changed from one large screen in the front of the cabin that you had to look over people's shoulders to see, to a screen every other row that dropped down so that every six people shared a screen,” said Chris Demange, Viasat director of mobile solutions. “Then it went to a seatback level which is, and will probably remain, popular for a long time on international long-haul flights. Now, we’re adding the total personalization on your own device."


As we celebrate Viasat's recent international live TV debut, it seems fitting to look back through history at the pioneers who laid the groundwork, and to look forward to what we can expect from IFE and in-flight connectivity in the future.

A concept drawing of the in-flight entertainment experience on a Pan Am 747 in 1967. Photo used by permission - panam.org

Early days

When that Aeromarine Airways plane took to the skies in 1921, its 11 passengers must have felt privileged to be the first people to watch a moving picture on a flight – even it was only a short promotional film called “Howdy Chicago!”


Four years later, UK-based Imperial Airways showed the first in-flight movie on a scheduled flight between London and Paris. Images from the time show a handful of passengers sitting on wicker chairs watching a projection of “The Lost World.” Amid much fanfare, the event was billed as “The Lost World Above the World.”


Despite these early forays into IFE, it wasn't until the early 1960s that the market really began to take off. Trans World Airlines (TWA) launched the first IFE system on a Boeing 707 in 1961, and began regularly showing movies on scheduled flights. Other airlines began to follow suit.


According to the Pan Am Historical Foundation, U.S. carrier Pan American World Airways started in 1965 to show movies on small TV sets dotted around the cabin to passengers who paid extra for the privilege. It describes the technology at the time as a "take-it-or-leave-it single choice on a cabin bulkhead, heard over pneumatic, stethoscope-like headsets."


The seatback era

The luxury of watching movies on an individual screen did not become a reality until 1988, when Northwest Airlines introduced the first seatback entertainment system, developed by Airvision Company, on a Boeing 747. Passengers could choose between six linear channels, although programming was shown on a fixed schedule because on-demand content had yet to take off.


Technology continued to evolve throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with personal screens increasingly replacing drop-down, shared monitors, the onset of in-flight connectivity, and, more recently, the bring-your-own-device trend.


Fast-forward to today and passengers on a growing number of flights have access to unlimited choice when it comes to wiling away the hours between departure and arrival – something those early IFE consumers could not have conceived of in their wildest dreams.


Viasat is at the forefront of this latest transition. The launch of our international live TV and internet service with JetBlue demonstrates just how far the IFE market has come.

With existing seatback screens and Viasat's high-speed in-flight connectivity allowing internet access in the air, many passengers use a two-screen approach similar to home.

Double-screening in the air

JetBlue's Airbus A321 Long Range (LR) aircraft operating between New York and London is equipped with a seatback entertainment system featuring Viasat's international television lineup. This includes BBC, CNBC, Sky News, CNN International, as well as live sports content. Passengers can also stream unlimited content on their own devices at no charge through Viasat's high-capacity satellite network.


"Part of Viasat's competitive advantage has been the ability to stream video and higher-bandwidth services, and with JetBlue you'll see that you can stream your own content as well as using our entertainment offerings," said Viasat's Demange.


This means that the double-screening trend – where we watch TV in our homes while simultaneously scrolling through websites on our cellphones – can be replicated in the air.


"I view seatback as the second screen. On a long-haul flight I think there's value in the seatback for your long-form content, and then you have your device where you can do whatever, just like you do in your living room," said Demange. "One screen doesn't seem to be enough. I think most people have the big screen and their own personal device at home, and I think it's the same on international flights."


The trick for airlines, he adds, is getting strong engagement that allows them to give the customer the best of both worlds — while avoiding choice overload.


"I think what you'll see going forward is how to ensure people are consuming the best content, have awareness of the best content, and have access to the best content. Some of that will be curated, and some will be brought by the passengers themselves," Demange said. He sees curated live TV content in the future as being more wide-ranging on international flights than it is today.


"When you look at international, the majority of linear offers out there have been news and a curated sports channel, and I think there's a market to do much more than that," he said.


Viasat's international live TV service may have just launched with JetBlue, but the future is bright for further expansion.


"We have four channels licensed directly through us and there are five in the bundle, and we're always exploring options to add more for our customers, but nothing to announce at this time," Demange said. "We're in the early days of our global reach right now on international, but it brings an exciting time for us in terms of getting that product off the ground."


The upcoming launch of the ViaSat-3 constellation – a trio of satellites expected to provide global coverage – will enable Viasat to continue its leadership in the world of IFE and connectivity.


It’s a far cry from the IFE offerings of a hundred years ago, but the goal is the same: give passengers the best in-flight experience possible. Today, that means technology enabling people to enjoy much the same entertainment experience they have at home while in the air.



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