Offering a DVD player to passengers is an increasingly common means of entertaining passengers on medium and long-haul trips. How well does it work in practice? Road Worrier finds out on a trans-Pacific crossing.
Most flights I take — as regular readers know, I take a lot, mostly with Qantas — offer some form of in-flight entertainment. A typical domestic flight will use overhead screens (the usual Qantas recipe is a news bulletin, some promo tourism footage and a sitcom episode). On overseas flights, the standard these days is on-demand entertainment via a seatback screen, driven by a PC-based system onboard.
The other alternative used by some airlines is individual DVD players handed out to customers, either as part of the service or for an additional rental fee. Jetstar is the most visible advocate of this approach in Australia. However, it also turns out to be offered on some flights run by Qantas' New Zealand subsidiary Jetconnect, and I got a chance to sample the wares while flying to Wellington for this week's linux.conf.au gathering.
The Jetconnect DVD service is mainly for business class passengers, but on my flight the players also got offered to some other passengers (I suspect based on frequent flyer status). You get handed a player — the Panasonic DVD-LA95, a model also available in a non-airline-specific version — and a sleeve filled with DVDs, which include a selection of the same content found on Qantas' on-demand systems (movies, documentaries and TV comedies).
I mention the "airline-specific version" because the player itself makes it very clear that you can't play any DVDs in it other than those supplied by Qantas, and that the DVDs supplied also won't play in a normal player. Presumably that's largely designed to stop people stealing the discs, which appear to get changed over on a bi-monthly basis. The earphone slot is designed to take the dual-pronged headphones found on most Qantas flights, which means you can't easily replace it with your fancy headset (I travel with a converter for those outlets, but it wouldn't work on the player either).
It's hard to mess up operating a portable DVD player, and it definitely gives you a wider range of choice than is usually found on a flight. The major disadvantage compared to a seatback or overhead screen is what to do if you want to watch something while eating. I managed to balance the player on my knees while eating the supplied breakfast, but that would be difficult if you were a shorter person. (This must be one of the few scenarios where being six foot tall on a plane isn't a disadvantage.)
Presuming the device itself is charged and doesn't break down, the DVD player approach still has one big potential advantage over the server-based systems used on larger planes: it's a lot less likely to crash. I actually can't remember the last time I was on a flight with individual in-seat entertainment which didn't require the entire system to be rebooted by the flight crew at least once, which is entertaining if you want to find out what OS is being used (I've encountered both Windows CE and Red Hat on Qantas flights) but annoying if you were halfway through a movie.
One obvious downside though is that you don't get extras like in-flight information or the route map. Your choices are also restricted to whatever is in the sleeve of DVDs on offer; that's still a lot better than the single-movie approach, but I couldn't help noticing several duplicates in the selection I was offered.
The best option for in-flight entertainment I've experienced to date remains the A380, which gives you flexible choices (such as picking individual episodes within a TV series) and a bunch of extra flight and travel information. Virgin Blue's live2air rebroadcast of Foxtel is a neat concept, but finding a show you like and which starts and finishes in-air can be time consuming. The DVD experience, despite the hassles, avoids that problem, and definitely does beat angling your head to see a distant screen three rows in front of you.
What's your preferred mode for in-flight entertainment: in-flight movies, DVDs on your own PC, iPod, book? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is getting closer to seeing the entire third series of 30 Rock on a plane. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.