In-Flight Entertainment Is Insanely Up-To-Date

In-Flight Entertainment Is Insanely Up-To-Date

The excellent Meryl-Streep-channels-Margaret-Thatcher movie The Iron Lady is still running in Australian cinemas and hasn’t been released on DVD anywhere in the world, but I legally watched a copy on the small screen on the weekend. How? I happened to get on the right plane.

I was on a brief visit to Adelaide, and ended up flying on a 737-800 which had just been refitted with the same in-seat entertainment system that has been in use on Qantas A380s for a few years now. “This aircraft has been in service for just over a week,” the crew announced.

Granted, it’s not the Wi-Fi entertainment system Qantas is also trialling on one plane right now, but I was still pleased to think I’d be able to choose what I watched in the air. But what really surprised me was the newness of the titles on offer.

International flights have long offered movies that haven’t yet hit the home entertainment circuit, but it’s been a less common option on domestic flights, where older movies and ancient episodes of Spicks & Specks on a fixed schedule are the norm. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of Hillsy (and some people have accused me of being the Aussie Alan Brough), but having a choice of movies is definitely a better option.

As well as The Iron Lady, there were lots of other recent releases on offer, including Tintin, Happy Feet 2, The Ides Of March and Anonymous. Sydney-Adelaide is a long enough flight to watch a whole movie, and many of my passengers appeared to be taking advantage.

The TV was equally new. Indeed, one series — the new Christina Applegate sitcom Up All Night — hasn’t shown up in Australia at all yet (Seven has the rights). I sampled a couple of episodes of that (OK, but I wouldn’t call it appointment viewing), and then settled in to watch Season 3 episodes of Modern Family. Several of these haven’t been shown by Ten locally, and as a result I’m now a month ahead of the local viewing schedule, and haven’t had to do anything illegal to achieve that.

Of course, in-plane entertainment has its limitations. On my return flight (also equipped with the service), the Red Hat Linux-based entertainment system wasn’t functioning when I boarded, and restarting it took a solid 15 minutes. The eventual announcement — “We have satisfactorily rebooted the onboard entertainment system” — suggests it’s not an entirely uncommon event.

Nonetheless, it’s good to see that there are ways in which regional distribution restrictions can be overcome without resorting to torrenting, even if we’re still a long way from truly global release dates. I’m not suggesting that anyone is going to start buying plane tickets purely to watch movies. But the fact that there’s enough flexibility in the rights deals to allow Qantas to show those movies and shows demonstrates that the entertainment industry can’t argue that it’s too hard to change its ways.

Lifehacker’s weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.


  • The thing I really hate about watching films on planes is CENSORSHIP. Most films I have come across are heavily edited for content; swearing, sex, nudity and just about anything else the airlines (religious, political or otherwise) deem not worthy of their passengers or country of residence.

    The worst part is, most films on planes are NOT cut for blood-thirsty violence, but the appearance of a nipple or swear word is reason enough to save our souls.

    Given I have flown on most of the worlds airlines, best and worst of em – it seems to be the same everywhere you fly. The middle eastern airlines are probably the worst and you can already figure out why. It’s too bad really. I can only watch G rated product on planes because of this and the fact key scenes are being manipulated. It really pisses me off, knowing i’m not seeing the film the way it was intended.

    Now, I always fly with a netbook and watch my own films. It’s too bad really, but my own films are better quality, the netbook or tablet has superior screen size (outside of business class) and my movies are never edited. The only issue is on long flights (10 hours plus) is that the netbook battery will only last 6hrs max on full battery playing video. A spare battery is probably the way to go for this, but trying to minimise weight when travelling is a priority.

    The asus transformer with keyboard dock gets a pretty amazing battery life – so that’s my likely next purchase to replace my dated netbook.

    This really deserves to be its own post Gus.

    • I remember on a BA flight was Washington DC to London they had Little Britain USA which featured the two comedians in body suits shaving each others balls….hilarious stuff….but I became accuately aware there was content on my screen that without the correct context could of been quite offense. I think itis safe to say there is going to be censorship for a while…..but there will be some things that will slip through regardless

  • Add in:
    – unusual formatting (letterbox? noooo)
    – unpredictable cut by pilot/steward/ess announcements
    – picture quality (glare/poor lighting/screen too dark/too pixelated)

    I’d never watch movies in flight. It’s not better than CAM quality of p2p distributions.

    • Re: “unpredictable cut by pilot/steward/ess announcements”….oh man, that gets my goat when a pilot who just likes to hear himself speak interrupts a broadcast every 2 minutes.

        • If you don’t want to be cheap – you’d go buy a distribution right to a new movie and run it in your own GC at home. Or become the censor board in ACMA or something similar.

  • I had this system on a flight from Syd-Mel (and then got robbed – shunted off on to a 15yr old A330 for Mel-BKK). Angus missed the best part – USB Ports on the screen that provide power and allow you to watch your own shows on the seatback screen. Seemed very tolerant of format too – Xvid + MP3 fine, H264 + AC3 fine as well.
    The A320 I was on also had plentiful power outlets even in Cattle Class (and this was Jetstar).

  • What’s the likelihood/timeframe of in-flight entertainment systems being installed in all domestic planes/routes e.g. Mel-Syd. I know that it is only an hour flight however moving into the future is Qantas trying to modernise it’s fleet?

    Sidenote: LH should write an article on which planes are used for which routes.

  • does anyone know who to contact or how one goes about getting the rights to show movies, tv and music on this scale? I’ve scoured the net and can’t find anything about it, all help would be really appreciated

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