Air travel was, at one time, a luxury for the wealthy. And certainly, there were a limited number of options for in-flight entertainment. Typically, there the only choice was to watch a movie, with audio channels playing music through large and uncomfortable headphones. Of course, nowadays we expect entertainment almost everywhere we go. And thanks to smartphone technology, that option has literally been left in our hands.

Whether we want to catch up on our favourite series on Netflix, listen to our most recently created playlist on Spotify, or play online games against our gaming friends, we simply need to turn on our phone and all of it is immediately possible. Gaming is one entertainment form has seen enormous growth, whether playing online or even our favourite slots, which we can play at a trusted online casino. Overall, there are so many options that it would be impossible to be bored. Many of us like to use our phone for entertainment on our daily commute to work so it's of little surprise that in-flight entertainment has become such a focal point of the passenger experience. But where did it all begin?

In-flight movies

In 1921, the first in-flight movie was shown when “Howdy Chicago” entertained passengers, courtesy of Aeromaine Airways. Unsurprisingly the aircraft flew around the Windy City. The very first commercial airline to show in-flight movies on a regular basis, however, was TWA. In 1961, they began with a 25-inch feel on a flight between New York and Los Angeles. High-definition and surround-sound it was not. But it was a start all the same.

In-flight entertainment took a huge step a decade later when film reels were replaced by Super 8mm. There was no longer a need to change reels after every single flight, and a new film was just one cassette away. Moving forward, airlines employed various systems when showing movies in the 70\s and 80’s, which included video cassettes, laser discs, and projectors.

Tracking our journey

Airlines providing in-flight entertainment started to become more of a normalised aspect of the flying experience. In 1982, we saw the introduction of a moving maps feature from Airshow, which enabled passengers to keep track of their aircraft, being able to see information on airspeed, altitude, air temperature, the local time, distance from the departure point, and distance to the arrival point. In 1988, we saw yet more advancements made in technology when Northwest Orient Airlines featured the first on-demand, in-seat entertainment system, with both audio and video, first introducing it to its Boeing 747 jets. Passengers enjoyed it so much that the airline later offered it on its wide-body fleet.

In 2005, XM Satellite Radio was introduced by AirTran Airways on its Boeing 717s, which gave passengers access to over 100 channels of digital-quality music, sports news, entertainment, and talk programming.

Expanding formats

In today’s flights, airlines employ a combination of on-demand in-seat screens, LCD drop-down screens, and free Wi-Fi to those who wish to bring their own entertainment via their mobile device, whether to watch a movie on Netflix, perform a search on Google, or to buy the latest NYT bestseller on Amazon. There are even video games for passengers to play on longer flights, whether alone or against others, in addition to programming that enables them to learn a language or listen to an audiobook.

In-flight entertainment has become so popular among passengers that UK consultancy Skytrax, along with the Airline Passenger Experience Association were asked to choose the world's No. 1 in-flight entertainment system. They chose Emirates' Ice. It offers over 2,500 channels of TV shows, movies, games, and music, all available in multiple languages, and all available on-demand. Skytrax also operates an airline, along with an airport ranking and review site.