A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. There was a time when in-flight entertainment was better than anything you could actually bring onto a plane. That time has long passed, and some airlines are looking to get rid of seat-back screens, in favor of letting you use whatever screen you have with you—while making the WiFi better so you'd actually want to do that. Odds are that not many people are going to miss those screens. But, nonetheless, it got me thinking about the technology that allows you to entertain yourself on a plane. Let's research the in-flight entertainment phenomenon. It'll be over before you know it.
The guy who didn't give up on in-flight movies even when the airlines told him it was too hard
David Flexer, an entrepreneur with a focus on the silver screen, wasn't a man afraid of a good gimmick.
In 1947, the Associated Press reported on his Memphis-area chain of drive-in theaters, because, among other things, he offered electric bottle warmers for baby's milk.
"The mother just reaches out of her motor car, pushes a button, and an attendant brings her the bottle warmers," Flexer told the wire service.
But his best gimmick came along in the 1960s, when he single-handedly helped popularize the in-flight movie through his company, Inflight Motion Pictures. The problem was, it was not an easy problem to solve at first. It required a lot of research, and required airlines to add a lot of equipment in not a lot of space.
It had been tried a few times before, mostly in the form of stunt marketing.
In 1921, for example, the film Howdy Chicago!, according to Paleofuture, was essentially played on a plane essentially as promotion for the city during a tradeshow, and correspondingly, the plane flew over the Windy City while the film aired. According to the site, the first in-flight movie that was actually a Hollywood film was The Lost World, which aired in 1925 on an Imperial Airlines flight.
But by the time Flexer got to the idea, it had become a non-starter with most airlines.
"A lot of airlines people said it couldn't be done and wouldn't be worth doing if it could be done," Flexer recalled in a 1962 New Yorker article.
In an interview with the newspaper magazine Parade, Flexer (who spent much time traveling as his empire grew) explained that he had the idea while on a coast-to-coast flight.
"My basic problem was twofold: how to get lightweight equipment designed so that it could fit into the shallow compartment in the ceiling of the plane's cabin, and how to get it so completely automated that a crew member could flick a switch and the equipment would project a two-hour movie without interruption in Cinemascope or Technicolor and then cut itself off," Flexer recalled to Parade.
It cost him a bunch of time and money (his team went through numerous projectors that failed for one reason or another), but eventually, he found the perfect balance—a 75-pound projector, laid on its side, that accepted 16mm film—the film gauge being important because it allowed a full movie to air during a flight. The projector was designed so that it was unobtrusive and would allow flight attendants to walk through the aisle without any trouble. Audio was handled by earphones in individual seats.
At first, he convinced one single domestic airline, TWA, to offer the service to its first-class passengers. (The first international airline to try it, Pakistan International Airlines, offered it to every passenger.) Despite the additional costs, it was such a huge success for TWA that it every other airline was suddenly interested.
"They've changed their tune," Flexer said of the airlines' early skepticism.
Soon enough, different takes on the model appeared. American Airlines, for example, introduced Astrovision, the first take on in-flight entertainment that gave passengers personalized screens—well, you had to share with your neighbor, as there was one TV for every other person, per the Chicago Tribune. It also diversified the options, giving users live television and access to multiple channels of music programs.
All these efforts, though, weren't cheap. Adding these features to a single plane cost between $50,000 and $60,000 in 1965, per the Tribune. (That's between $385,000 and $462,000 today.)
But while the model mostly worked, problems could always arise.
"A case in point is this recent incident: Tail winds so increased the speed of a New York to London jet liner that it arrived before the end of the movie," the Tribune's Alfred Borcover wrote.
Now, if a fight ends before the movie's over, we just live with it.
"These TV screens, about one every six or seven rows of seats, provide much better resolution than the current video projection system. The resolution will also be better than that found on the TV sets in most American homes."
— George Sahler, a former chairman of the World Airline Entertainment Association and an in-flight entertainment manager at Lufthansa, discussing in a 1986 Los Angeles Times interview the move toward multiple large screens on planes. Sahler predicted that within a decade or so that many flights would have small individual screens built into the seats, which would allow people to watch customized programming for their own personal tastes, along with live television programming beamed to the planes via satellite—two predictions that quickly became true.
One notable in-flight entertainment system is based on the Super NES (really)
If you had a credit card and a long flight, you could play Super Nintendo games for $4 an hour on Northwest Airlines in the 90s.
(It was certainly a bit of an upgrade for Nintendo on the aviation front. During one infamous incident in 1989, customs agents blew up an NES game, which they believed to be three sticks of dynamite.)
The Nintendo Gateway System, first introduced in 1993, wasn't only limited to planes. It also showed up on cruise ships and in hotels—a somewhat unusual strategy for a company that at the time usually appealed to 8-year-olds. Why like this? Simply, Nintendo was looking to expand (and keep) its audience beyond preteens.
"The real problem in this business has been making the games available to kids over 18," said Peter Main, Nintendo of America's vice president at the time, according to a 1993 Reuters article. He added: "Now, with a with the swipe of a credit card, a guy can try a game without a snotty clerk behind the counter telling him he's doing it wrong."
An early variation of the Singapore Airlines Krisworld system, shown in a video above, was likely based on the Nintendo Gateway System.
In other words, while other consoles were relying on realistic blood in Mortal Kombat, Nintendo was aiming for accessibility to business travelers and other old people. (This marketing strategy is something also highlighted by another Nintendo oddity of the era, the Exertainment Life Cycle.)
But while Nintendo's approach to its Gateway System was bold, it certainly wasn't cheap, at least in the case of the airlines. According to an article on the initiative in a 1994 issue of Nintendo Power, the company had to completely re-engineer the Super NES to fit in a tiny device roughly the size of an original Game Boy. More details:
Since space is at a premium on planes, all the components that normally fit inside your Super NES Control Deck had to be fit into a three and a half inch square that is one inch thick. To accomplish that miraculous feat, the engineers at NOA had to use many new parts. They also had to work with a different power supply that called for more efficient components. The most obvious difference between the Gateway System and the Super NES is that you can't plug a Game Pak into the Gateway. Instead, game programs are downloaded into a two megabyte RAM (Random Access Memory.) That's enough memory to hold the massive 16 megabit games that are becoming more commonplace.
And this thing didn't just play video games, either—it also allowed for movies, music, phone calls, shopping, and access to information. Heck, it even allowed for faxes. (That meant the controller was more like a remote control combined with a phone, combined with a controller.) And on top of that, this multifunction monstrosity had to pass rigorous testing from regulatory bodies like the Federal Aviation Administration.
And as a result, the setup was insanely expensive. Per Nintendo Power, Northwest was spending upwards of $1.5 million per plane to get the necessary equipment installed. (It was also a moneymaker for Nintendo, which reportedly made $10 million per year in royalties on this initiative, per the New York Times.)
A clip, showing a Game Boy Color game being played on a Singapore Airlines flight.
In the case of hotels, the device was far cheaper—a much more reasonable $50 per room. And that system had much more flexibility. According to a fact sheet culled by SNES Central, the hotel version of the system eventually supported the Nintendo GameCube and Nintendo 64, whereas the airline version only supported the Super NES, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance.
Nintendo often worked with different vendors on these offerings. For example, the company best-known for bringing Nintendo games to hotels, LodgeNet, was a growing force in hotel entertainment in the 90s, and at one point, LodgeNet singlehandedly represented half a million Super NES installs.
The reason it's struggling is the same reason that they're talking about getting rid of seat-back monitors on planes.
Obviously, all of the above ideas for getting entertainment onto planes were awesome way back when.
But investing in these types of devices is hard to justify in an age when literally every device being brought on a plane is nearly as good, if not better.
And there's a good reason the tablet or laptop you're carrying with you is so good in comparison. Per Fast Company, that single-screen getup in front of your face while you're in economy class? That costs something like $10,000, with the remote adding couple thousand more to the price.
Why the high cost? Everything needs to get tested by the FAA to ensure it won't endanger the plane, and because the system gets updated so infrequently, airlines tend to future-proof by buying technology that won't go out of date right away.
But it does eventually go out of date. The reason why the plane version of the Nintendo Gateway System was stuck on the Super NES while hotels had access to the GameCube? Simple: Northwest Airlines (and other airlines that used the system) didn't want to have to pay another million and a half bucks per plane to upgrade. When it's a seven-digit expense, you want to minimize the pain. We get it.
The logic of getting rid of these things is pretty good: Offering basically the same service through high-speed WiFi is simply going to be cheaper, you're cutting down on the amount of weight on the plane (which saves on fuel costs), and for people who don't have smartphones, you can make a little money simply by renting out a few tablets. And, most notable of all, The New York Times notes that one-tenth of the cost of the average passenger plane goes to in-flight entertainment. That's crazy! So it's good we're starting to lose these relics that reflect just how captive the audience is on a long flight. The question, of course, is this: If they get rid of them, will they give us a little extra leg room in return?