Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: Making Time Fly

Developments in the world of in-flight entertainment

Settling in your middle seat on a packed flight, you were desperate for some distraction. Anticipation mounts when the flight attendants pull down the projection screen. You put your headset on, only to hear the dreaded tunes and canned sound effects – another episode of Just for Laughs.

The Canadian silent comedy show has its moments. But if major Chinese airlines aren’t just joking about becoming international travelers’ first choice, they will need some serious upgrades on their in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems.

IFE on major Chinese airlines, at least for coach passengers, often consists of a hodgepodge of Chinese newscasts, infomercials, Shirley Temple movies and, of course, Just for Laughs Gags on flickering retractable screens. And no, a loud auction of a round-trip ticket over the PA system on Hainan Airlines doesn’t really qualify as high-quality entertainment either.

In the age of endless entertainment options and ultra-long-haul flights, top international airlines have been distinguishing themselves with increasingly sophisticated audio-video on-demand (AVOD) systems in all cabins.

When I took the world’s longest non-stop flight, Singapore Airlines flight SQ 21 from New York to Singapore, the airline’s next-generation IFE system made the 18-hour, 40-minute journey fun. In between all the eating and drinking, I felt time actually flew with the choice of 80 movies, 180 CD titles, dozens of video games and even language tutorials – all at my fingertips.

You can sample Singapore Airline’s KrisWorld system on shorter regional routes as well – but not all aircraft is fitted with the latest Wiseman 3000 version yet, so keep your fingers crossed. Other airlines are catching up with Singapore Airlines in the IFE race, like Emirates, which also boasts a true next-generation AVOD system. Korean Air is another IFE champion, with AVOD available for all passengers, including Economy Class, on selected flights. Their in-flight catalogue includes over 30 movies and a selection of more than 1,000 different music choices, and they’re planning to extend this system in future to include it on every flight.

Air China has made the first step in upgrading its IFE system by offering limited AVOD on its new Airbus A330 fleet with personal TV in every seatback. These planes, mostly deployed on international routes like Beijing-Madrid-Sao Paolo, make some domestic runs. I almost got to watch Steve Carell finally get some satisfaction in the flick The 40 Year Old Virgin on my own LCD screen on a recent flight back from Shanghai.

In the end though, you get what you pay for. Airlines that spend heavily on IFE will likely charge a premium. If rock-bottom fares are what you are after, grin and bear it, and thank God for the iPod. Steven Jiang

(Answer to last month’s question: The five airport codes in the last paragraph are MAD – Madrid; PEE – Perm, Russia; FAT – Fresno, California; SIN – Singapore; and PIT – Pittsburgh.)

This article was originally published on page 156 of the August 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

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