Away Game

In-Flight Tech: Which Airlines Have the Best?



Remember years ago when airlines first made seatback telephones available and you couldn’t get through a flight without overhearing a fellow passenger say, “You’ll never guess where I’m calling from!”

Or think about your first time using the touchscreen in the seatback in front of you to play an in-flight trivia game against fellow passengers. Do you recall how good it felt to finally beat the know-it-all in seat 3A, despite the fact that you cheated off the dude diagonally across from you in 14B?

Good times.

Well, the thrill of those early tech moments may be gone, but for some travelers, having connectivity and entertainment during a plane ride isn’t a surprise or a perk – it’s a need. And if you feel the same way, you don’t need to be aboard Air Force One to have access to decent in-flight entertainment (IFE), Wi-Fi, and other amenities. A resource like SeatGuru will permit you to compare seat maps and scope out the IFE, Wi-Fi, and electrical outlet availability on different aircraft. But how do frequent fliers rate the tech experience aboard different airlines? Read on.


Flier Sandra McKenna is an AirTran fan because the airline “to me has been a front runner in the Wi-Fi experience. It's not free” – the airline makes uses of in-flight internet service Gogo – but McKenna reports that the airline does “offer occasional specials.” Tech blogger and Gogo fan Andy Abramson says he chose AirTran four times because the service was available and likewise favors Virgin because the service is available on that airline.


For frequent business traveler Ken Walker, a priority is managing to get aboard an Airbus A330, since “every seat has a video screen in the back of the headrest and a remote control in the arm support. There are about 50 "on demand" movies available, along with some TV shows, games, and limited email access” and while largely a free service on overseas flights, “domestically different airlines charge different rates” to provide it. “With Delta, it's free to Hawaii, but you pay to use it from L.A. to NYC, for example,” Walker says. So adamant is he about flying an A330 that when he booked an upcoming Hawaii trip he “specifically chose to fly [with Delta] from Minneapolis to Detroit, then from Detroit to Honolulu because it was the only flight that used an A330 from Detroit to Honolulu. The direct flight from MSP to Honolulu was available,” as well as two hours shorter, “but it was via a Boeing 777 that did not have the onboard entertainment system.”

Engineer turned comedian Dan Nainan, best known as the forlorn bubble-wrapped PC in the “Mac vs. PC”  Apple commercials, flew 200,000 miles last year and has high marks for Delta first class. “We get Wi-Fi, as well as two [electrical outlets]. Also, the in-flight entertainment system rocks. I usually spend my time playing the in-flight trivia.”


Frequent traveler and founder John E. DiScala reports that aboard Emirates “the flat-screen TV was mounted on the wall in front of me since I was in a bulkhead seat; normally they are on the seat back” and are 17 inches. About 1,200 movie and music channels were available on demand, he recalls. “They even had all the UK's number one hits from 1952 to 2009. The best feature was that you could make your own playlist, which was quick and easy to do.” Other tech included a live feed of the plane in flight via multiple cameras attached to the plane as well as the ability for passengers to plug in their own cameras “and view their photos or PDF files. There's [also] an international electrical outlet that doesn't require an adapter, and a phone to make calls or send SMS messages [for a fee].”

Frontier Airlines

A frequent Frontier flier between Denver and Atlanta as well as other destinations, Brian D. Olson is a fan of the airline’s DirecTV service. “As a frequent flier I get it at no charge, although other passengers pay $6.” He says that “the only fault in the system is when we flew to Anchorage in July. Just north of the Canadian border we lost the satellite signal” and that “while not of critical interest, I hope that Frontier adds Wi-Fi.” Olson’s wish may soon be granted as Gogo reportedly will be available on the airline soon.

Jet Blue

McKenna reports that like Frontier, Jet Blue still uses “the standard DirecTV system,” though the programming on a recent flight did include a free “preview of an upcoming new-season TV show shown in its entirety.” Overall, McKenna observes, the “disappointment here was [that Jet Blue was] such a front runner with in-flight entertainment when they began years ago, yet no Wi-Fi.”

Singapore Airlines

U.S. expat James J. Simon has lived in Singapore for the last six years and logs more than 100,000 miles annually, recently flying economy class with airline and cookbook publisher Singapore Air. Aside from offering more than 100 movie and TV channels, the airline “offers economy passengers in-seat power for laptops plus special connections for one's Apple products. One can charge an iPhone [or] iPod and also watch one's own videos on the airplane's video screen if one has the video accessory.” All these services are fee, says Simon.

Virgin America

Several fliers rate Virgin highly, not just for the aforementioned availability of paid internet, but also because their entertainment system goes beyond movies, music, and games. DiScala notes that the Virgin touchscreen interface enables “passengers [to] order food and drinks on demand, so no more waiting for carts.” One nice touch is that you can use the system at will to order such free items as soda or coffee without feeling obligated to order a $10 Cuban sandwich. Another unexpected tech amenity is a green one, says DiScala, as Virgin is “the first airline to offer passengers the ability to offset the carbon footprint of their flight” by using the in-flight entertainment system to enable a donation to a carbon offset project via For instance, you can help offset the environmental impact of a round-trip flight from Boston to Los Angeles for no more than it costs to buy that Cuban sandwich.