Tracing back the origins of in-flight entertainment

Written by Sami-Jo Adelman

Week 43

On a recent Ryan Air flight from Bologna, Italy to London I encountered a serious problem – no in-flight entertainment. Yes, I know that it’s only a two-hour flight, and by no means enough time to be immersed in an action feature film… but perhaps a couple episodes of How I Met Your Mother?

This hindrance prompted me to trawl the historic records to find out when in-flight entertainment began, and why it was missing from my plane.

The first in-flight film was shown on board an Aeromarine Airways flight in 1921. Alas, passengers were not treated to a Harold Llyod comedy, but rather Howdy Chicago, a promotional film produced by Rothacker Film Co. for the Chicago Boosters Club, to showcase the tourist attractions of the Windy City. A screen was hung at the forecabin of the eleven-passenger hydroplane, and a DeVry suitcase projection machine was used to display the moving picture. This historic flight demonstrated the practicability of movie entertainment for transatlantic aerial commuters in the days to come.

The first real blockbuster – The Lost World, a silent fantasy adventure film, and an adaption of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name – was screened on an Imperial Airways flight on April 6th 1925. Below is a recording of the landmark event:

The true birth of in-flight entertainment arrived in the 1960’s. According to AP Movie-Television Writer Bob Thomas, in the Lewiston Evening Journal “It all started because a theatre chain operator became bored on long flights from the East Coast to Hollywood”.

David Flexer, a Tennessee-based cinema professional, realized that plane cabins resembled projection rooms. So why not show movies in order to pass those languid flight hours? He spent four years and a million dollars devising a method of showing movies on aircrafts that was lightweight, compact, automatic and met the Federal Aviation Agency’s approval.

In 1961, Trans World Airlines bought into the idea (a 16mm film system that would replace the previous 30-inch-diaemter film reels) and the result was the first movie screening on a normal scheduled flight from New York to Los Angeles. The film? By Love Possessed, a stirring drama featuring unrequited love and suicide.

As Hollywood continued to produce overly sensual and dramatic films, there were growing concerns about film variety on flights, and new releases that would appeal to the family trade. It was even documented that frequent travellers began switching reservations to avoid seeing the same film twice!

Fortunately in 1971, TRANSCOM developed the 8mm film cassette, which meant that cabin crew could change movies in-flight and add short subject programming.

Then, in 1988, Airvision – a subsidiary of the Dutch electronics giant N. V. Philips – unveiled the first truly modern seat-back entertainment systems, offering on-demand video and audio (using 2.7-inch LCD displays). Prompt orders came in from Mexicana Airlines, Air Holland and KLM.

Seat-back entertainment for the masses was brought in by Virgin Atlantic, who installed the systems across all classes in 1991.

Today, in-flight entertainment (which encompasses movies, music, TV series, games and radio) is offered as an option on almost all wide body aircrafts, while some narrow body aircrafts are not equipped with any form of in-flight entertainment at all. This is mainly due to the aircraft storage and weight limits. Damn you Ryan Air.