Coffee, Tea, or Movies?

A history of airborne theaters

Nowadays, you can stream movies on all domestic air carriers. Each airline offers its own pricing structure, whether it is purchasing WiFi by the hour or for the duration of the flight or, for the travel-intensiv,e for a monthly fee. Those who are flying the intensely thrifty Spirit Airlines can purchase two levels of connectivity, with an upcharge (of course) for those interested in streaming. (Which makes Spirit charging for snacks and beverages all the more sensible: Have you gone to a movie theatre that gives out free consumables?)

Even Southwest, which is having a serious challenge vis-à-vis an outdated computer system, offers 138 movies—from 12 Strong, starring Chris Hemsworth in a military uniform, not an Asgardian outfit, to You’ve Got Mail, which may be a touch of nostalgia for those who whimsically remember AOL CDs—on offer as part of its free entertainment programming.

Movies on airplanes simply make sense. You’re sitting there for an extended period of time, and you might have a niggling feeling that you could find yourself plummeting toward your doom, so even Godzilla vs. Kong is a worthwhile distraction.

Consider the configuration of a commercial aircraft.

Rows of seats face in one direction (and, speaking of times gone by, some may recall the Southwest rear-facing seats).

Other places with that seating configuration tend to be things like classrooms and, yes, theatres, movie and otherwise.

So simply from a structural point of view, using the interior of an aircraft as a place to provide entertainment makes sense, particularly on flights lasting more than a couple of hours. Not to pick on the company that has left people stranded across the country, we know Southwest for its comparatively short flights; according to the company, in 2019 the average length of its flights were two hours and four minutes, which means that given the running time of two hours and ten minutes, watching 12 Strong could be an iffy proposition.

The first movie that passengers saw aircraft was a promotional short, “Howdy Chicago.” It was on an Aeromarine Airways flight in 1921—over Chicago.

Four years later, in 1925, an airplane exhibited the first commercial film: The Lost World on an Imperial Airways flight from London to Paris, based on a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle that doesn’t feature Sherlock Holmes. The Library of Congress determined that movie to be sufficiently sufficient such that it entered into the National Film Registry. While you might correctly think that it would be difficult, at best, to hear dialog in an airplane before the era of amount of sound-deadening materials, know that The Lost World is silent.

During the 1960s, airlines used 16-mm film to provide in-cabin entertainment. In the 1970s they transitioned to 8-mm cassettes.

While nowadays it’s common to see seatback screens, that didn’t exist until 1988. Before then there were screens on the bulkhead of an aircraft or ones that pulled down from the ceiling. The interior width of a 747, the first so-called “wide-body”—an aircraft configured in some cases with lounges and even piano bars—was 20 feet. So regardless of the seating configuration of the particular aircraft ( three seats/aisle/four seats/aisle) the screens had fairly small dimensions: not wider than six feet.

Which brings to mind the whole issue of directors who have been critical of movies on streaming services because, in effect, it’s a matter viewing the film on what amounts to a TV screen. Nowadays the screen size of a given seatback system is a maximum of 18 inches; even though watching a movie on a 747 wasn’t much better than seeing one in a classroom where the kids kept getting up to go to the bathroom and consequently had their shadows on the screen, the additional 54 inches compared to today’s seatback setup didn’t prove beneficial to the airlines.

That said, seeing Dune on a 55-inch screen at home (the average size of a screen in a U.S. household) or even on a vintage 747 screen (while there are but a few carriers still flying the 747, they’ve made the transition to seatback setups, so this is theoretical) is probably better than watching it on your phone—which is an option offered by Southwest because it doesn’t have seatback screens.

Of course it doesn’t.

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Stephen Macaulay

Stephen Macaulay writes about the music industry for Glorious Noise ( began his career in Rockford, Illinois, a place about which Warren Zevon once told a crowd, “How can you miss with a name like Rockford?”

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