Over the weekend, I flew from New York to L.A. and back, within 72 hours. What made 11 of those hours in the air somewhat tolerable, was the use of my new iPad and the Virgin America in-flight wireless Internet. However, I hit some turbulence when it came to streaming video on services like Netflix Watch Instantly and Hulu Plus. On a 5.5-hour flight, things like Netflix and Hulu can be a salvation, letting you watch movies and TV shows for “free” to kill time. On Hulu Plus (which, to be fair, is still in beta) I was having massive load problems. Shows would launch, and then stop half-way. When I did they to start up again, the video quality was pixelated and problematic. On Netflix, the streaming was less interrupted, but still choppy and lacking. My first thought was “wouldn’t airlines want to improve the signal, so that you’re more likely to pay for the wifi?” After two minutes, though, I realized that I was a fool for thinking that.
Of course they don’t want you to rely on your handheld device’s wifi video, they have their own video to sell. On the TV monitors, there are a host of in-flight video-on-demand options, and many of them are pricey. If you wanted to rent new release titles like Date Night or Valentine’s Day, Virgin charges you $8. That’s obviously where they want you to direct your movie-viewing dollars. Even some TV shows were offered for a few bucks and episode. The iPad offers the first serious contender for your in-flight viewing attention, and on a recent tour of the Virgin systems, CNET’s Caroline McCarthy actually spoke to executives at the airline about the threat of the iPad:
“At least in the Americas, we’re pretty far ahead,” James Weatherson, in-flight entertainment engineer, said of Red, which offers on-demand movies, TV channels, video games, streaming music, and touch-screen food and drink ordering as well as a gimmick that lets you message any other passenger on the plane. “Obviously, not everyone will carry a device, but even for the people who do, it’s sort of like a passive entertainment, you don’t have to get something out, you don’t have to worry about plugging it in, (and) it’s just right there in front of you. There’s a lot of people who just watch ESPN Classic or whatever’s on because it’s on and they don’t have to think about it. It’s a nice way to kind of disconnect.”
OK, that’s a decent argument, but there’s no way that any in-flight movie and game selection could compete with Apple’s digital mega-mall. And one Australian airline has even started iPad rentals because of their potential in-flight appeal. So it’s interesting that some of the areas that Weatherson said are getting improved soon on Red are the ones that are less likely to be found on a portable device brought on-board–live television, the Google Maps flight tracker, and the “store” (which currently sells food, drinks, and offers an array of donation options like purchasing carbon credits to offset a flight).