In a world of crammed airline seats, terrible food and wailing children, a flight without your favourite comedy movie or multiple games of Super Mario is hardly imaginable today. Such inflight entertainment (IFE) systems are instrumental in making long-haul flights bearable and keeping travellers engaged. Airlines have always competed fiercely in offering the latest IFE technology to their passengers, but were these systems always so sophisticated? Let’s find out.

1920-1950s

Although the first ever flight took off in 1914, IFE was first launched in 1921 as a promotional film, Howdy Chicago! to just 11 passengers in an Aeromarine Airways plane. It was only in 1925 that the travellers witnessed a Hollywood movie – The Lost World screened by Imperial Airways. Complementing the luxury wine and dine experience, IFE began to lean towards music with a specially designed 162-kg piano that delighted the passengers aboard the 1936 Hindenburg flight. Over the years, inflight music & cinema evolved to provide live performances, including a famous dinner event by the Hollywood star, Veronica Lake in 1941.

1960-1970s

Inflight cinema in the previous era was limited to brief movies with poor audio. Full-length movies gained traction only after the introduction of Inflight Motion Pictures’ 75-pound projector in 1961. By Love Possessed was the first such movie to be screened. The excitement of watching movies in flights was so high that airlines faced a surprisingly large number of reservation switches as frequent air travellers avoided watching the same film. Fortunately, the 8mm film launched in 1971 resolved the problem by enabling airlines to show multiple programmes. Meanwhile, as airlines scrambled to jump on the cinema bandwagon, Braniff Airlines discreetly raised the bar for IFE by launching the first inflight video game Pong for its travellers in 1975.

1980-1990s

The biggest revolution in IFE was Northwest Airlines’ in-seat, 2.7-inch LCD monitor & on-demand selection of audio & video channels in 1988. This feature has defined today’s passenger viewing experience. Virgin Atlantic was the first airline to offer these screens across all its flights in 1991.  Northwest Airlines later bounced back with the introduction of Super Nintendo games to its travellers. With a credit card, anybody could play Nintendo’s latest games at a mere $4/hour. For sports buffs interested in outdoor games and dreading missing the action during their flight, Delta Airlines telecasted the 1996 Olympics live for all its travellers.

2000-2010

The last decade has witnessed the enrichment of the inflight customer experience beyond cinema & games. For many passengers who are simply curious about their whereabouts at 35,000-feet altitude, Flight Display Systems launched an interactive Worldwide Moving Map providing real-time location, airspeed, weather and other information directly on the screen. Air Canada delivered the first inflight email in 2001 unleashing an era of connectivity (albeit expensive) in the air. Travellers benefitted immensely with the tremendous growth of satellite communication technology. AirTran Airways offered 100+ music, news, sports and entertainment channels through its XM Satellite Radio in 2005.

2010 onwards

The current decade’s innovations have focussed on customizing IFE to suit passenger needs. A sharp trend shaping the travellers’ inflight experience is the option to plug-and-play with their own devices. For instance, Lufthansa’s Board Connect system allows travellers to order food, pre-shop at duty-free stores, make hotel reservations and generally view curated media content on their personal devices.

Today, Emirates’ inflight entertainment is all about personalization. Their award-winning Ice system offers international visitors easy lessons to learn new languages, special captions for passengers with hearing or visual impairment and a dedicated eSports channel. The Australian airline, Qantas is offering Virtual Reality (VR) tours of beautiful islands and mesmerizing beaches, much to the awe and delight of its passengers.

A bizarre but noteworthy social experiment that revolutionized IFE is ‘Holidate’. In 2013, 60 men and women boarded a speed-dating flight to experience 21 short dates. UK’s dating website, Doingsomething.co.uk organized this trip to establish a link between love and travel.

What is the next big breakthrough in IFE going to be? Nobody can predict, but the latest updates will always reach you first through Fly.com, the most user-friendly air travel site.

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