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Flying Nonstop to Bangkok? Time for Airborne Theater

I was at the airport in Singapore some years ago chatting with an oil company roustabout who was waiting to board Singapore Airlines for its 19-hour nonstop flight to Newark. He was traveling in business class, which features sumptuous food and free-flowing drink, seats that recline into lie-flat beds and an in-flight entertainment system with 80 on-demand movies available on personal high-definition screens. (More: Road Warrior Tested: Singapore Airlines Business Class)

United Airlines Entertainment System
Photo by Darren Booth for CNBC.com
United Airlines Entertainment System

“I love this flight,” he told me as the boarding announcement began. “I can see four movies, get drunk twice, and still have a decent night’s sleep.”

O.K., so he was maybe an extreme case, especially as regards the booze. But the fact is, lots of people who frequently travel on long-haul international flights do most of their moviegoing in the air. Long-haul airlines, especially the top-tier international carriers, have been investing heavily for years in ever-newer generations of in-flight entertainment systems that provide a wide range of on-demand movies, television programs and other options for travelers who often don’t get the opportunity to go to the local multiplex or even watch much TV at home.

“I don’t really have time to go to the movies,” said Phil Mathews, the president of Air Partner, an international company that supplies charter flights on private jets. “I would rather wait until I’m trapped on an airplane for eight hours and have a movie that I haven’t yet seen that will occupy a couple of hours.”

Mr. Mathews frequently flies commercially to Europe, and occasionally to Asia. He said he looked forward so much to breaking up in-flight work with a movie that, when he can, “I will pick the flights that I know will have the better in-flight entertainment systems on board,” he said.

Henry Harteveldt, a co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, added that long-haul flights provide opportunities to see independent films or other movies that can be difficult to find in theaters because most major releases “are clearly not targeting folks who are much older than 30.”

He added, “On my last trip to Europe on KLM, I watched ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,’ ” a 2011 independent British film. Even if they’re a year or so old, “it’s great to be able to have access to first-rate movies, especially on the daytime flights — Europe to the U.S. or the U.S. to Asia,” he said. “I tend to work a lot on airplanes, but there’s only so much work you can do without a break,” he said.

Airlines know that in-flight entertainment — based on seat-back digital screens or even widescreen monitors in some premium long-haul cabins — can be a crucial differentiator on international flights. (More: In-Flight Entertainment: What You Get on Each Airline)

But they’re also looking ahead at a potential crossroads, as more travelers bring along iPads and other tablets, laptops and other personal devices onto which they have already stored movies.

Recently, John Slosar, the chief executive of Cathay Pacific, created a stir in the industry when he speculated that given the proliferation of these personal devices and the improvements in in-flight Wi-Fi and other systems for providing streaming video, “embedded” airline seat-back screens could become obsolete in five or six years.

But that’s a long way off in airline time, with a lot of complications in the way, as Mr. Slosar himself conceded. Among the obstacles are the disinclination of movie studios to alienate theater owners by making new releases widely available on personal devices. Licensing fees and worries about piracy are major issues.

“I genuinely do not believe that embedded in-flight entertainment is in its last phase,” said Mary Kirby, the editor in chief of Airline Passenger Experience Magazine, which covers industry news in things like cabin and seat design, in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity and in-flight entertainment.

“There is no evidence suggesting that the top-tier carriers, the ones that have always been advocates of embedded in-flight entertainment systems, are going to get rid of those systems in the near term,” she said.

On the other hand, some long-haul airlines that take in-flight entertainment very seriously are gingerly experimenting with providing content on devices like iPads, usually through systems in which the airlines distribute the devices already loaded with licensed content to passengers. A recent example is Jet Asia Airways, a Thai carrier, which began offering iPads loaded with movies and other programs last month on its Bangkok-Tokyo route.

However the hardware and distribution complexities are eventually worked out, the fact will remain that a lot of people depend on the airline for entertainment on those long international routes.

“It’s really the only time I get the opportunity to watch a real movie,” said Ms. Kirby, who also catches up on past seasons of television programs on long-haul flights. “At home, when I do get to go to the movie theater, it’s to take my 8-year-old daughter to a kid-friendly film.”

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