After battling the budget airlines on fares, the traditional carriers are now trying to match their rivals' in-flight entertainment offerings.
Low-cost carrier JetBlue Airways has raised the expectations of airline passengers with its 36-channel satellite TV programming at each seat. Other budget carriers -- including Frontier Airlines and Delta Air Lines' unit, Song -- have followed JetBlue with similar services.
Now, American Airlines, the world's largest carrier, has begun a 12-week test of a new handheld entertainment system that plays movies, music videos, TV shows, video games on a 9-inch screen and contains local or national newspapers. The carrier will still offer its usual entertainment -- headphones that plug into the seat arm for movies and music.
American's foray into individualized entertainment comes as the bigger traditional carriers search for new revenue to bolster their weak bottom lines. Unlike the low-cost carriers that provide their offerings free of charge, the major carriers are providing the handhelds for a fee in coach (free for first class and business passengers). American is testing a charge of $10 or $12 for its coach passengers.
United just completed a month-long test of providing a Panasonic DVD player for a $12 fee to passengers aboard its low-fare unit Ted on flights between Denver and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Travelers had 10 to 12 movie choices. First-class and business travelers on United got complimentary DVD players on flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco to New York's John F. Kennedy International.
Alaska Airlines launched its digEplayer portable entertainment system earlier this year. Coach passengers pay $10 for the system, similar to American's, on transcontinental flights. The airline plans to roll out the device on all flights three hours or longer by the end of the year.
"The response from customers has been very good," said Greg Latimer, Alaska's director of brand and product marketing. "JetBlue really demonstrated that in-flight entertainment could be a differentiator."
Dulles-based Independence Air says its financial troubles won't stop it from offering satellite TV in the seatbacks of its Airbus jets as early as January. Independence Air plans to offer 24 channels via EchoStar satellite TV. Independence spokesman Rick DeLisi said the carrier has not decided whether it will charge a fee for the service.
For its part, Southwest Airlines remains staunchly opposed to in-flight entertainment. Ed Stewart, the airline's spokesman, said Southwest studied the possibility of adding in-flight technology but found it was not cost-effective because most of its flights are short, about an hour or so. "We don't think our customers really want to pay for that," Stewart said.
Some frequent fliers said they welcomed the handheld devices if they were complimentary. Otherwise, they weren't interested. "I can attend a movie, even if I pay full price, for several dollars cheaper," said Fern M. Malila, a computer sales specialist from Oakton.
Chet Pryor, an English professor at Montgomery College, has used Alaska's system. The downside, he said, is that very frequent fliers -- those who travel several times a month -- will find movies and shows on the devices that they've already seen on previous flights.
American's handheld devices, called personal entertainment appliances, are a relatively inexpensive way to improve the entertainment menu for passengers without having to rewire its fleet of aircraft.
American will initially test the devices on flights three hours or more across the country, between Chicago and the West Coast, and between Dallas and Seattle. Depending on passenger demand, American could roll the devices out systemwide by spring, said Mary McKee, managing director of American's in-flight product service.
The American handheld offers 12 to 20 movies that have just finished their theater run and are near being released on DVD or video. BizClass recently tried out the device and found it included Ben Stiller's "Starsky and Hutch" and "The Manchurian Candidate," an R-rated film that had been scrubbed of adult language and content for a general audience.
The device also played the latest CDs from Sting, Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder and Loretta Lynn and TV shows such as "Spin City," "Cheers" and the CBS drama "Without a Trace." Its video games included Video Poker, Blackjack and Space Fighter.
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