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The Sensible Traveler

Midair can feel like your den

Email|Print| Text size + By Bruce Mohl
Globe Staff / December 12, 2004

Do travelers select their airlines based on the entertainment offered on board?

Few travelers would admit that the availability of a television show or movie would sway their flight decision, but many airlines are convinced the type of entertainment they offer is critical to attracting customers and keeping them coming back.

The traditional offering of a single movie and some taped television shows is no longer enough. Airlines are now striving to offer the same quantity and level of service travelers can find on the ground in their very own homes.

Several carriers, including American Airlines, are experimenting with hand-held entertainment devices that let travelers watch movies and TV shows, listen to music, and read digital newspapers and books. Most are charging $10 to $12 per flight for the service.

Television, specifically satellite television, has been a huge hit with customers at JetBlue Airways, Song Airlines, and Frontier Airlines. JetBlue and Song beam the 24-channel service free to the seatback video screens of each passenger, while Frontier charges $5 for the same service.

Todd Burke, a spokesman for JetBlue, said he didn't think travelers were booking flights on JetBlue solely because of its TV offerings, but he said customer surveys indicate the service is quite popular, particularly with parents who hope to keep their young children occupied during a long trip.

"We've heard from a lot of parents who say, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,' " Burke said.

A flight used to be one of the best places to read a book because there were so few distractions. Now airlines are rushing to fill the void with the same slew of entertainment distractions available on the ground.

Burke said the popularity of the satellite television service was evident right from the start. When the airline first started flying, he said, it experimented by offering the service on one of its two planes. It didn't take long before airline officials noted a dramatic difference in passengers who flew with the television service. The plane was promptly dubbed "The Happy Plane," Burke said.

JetBlue's TV service is so popular today that the airline even lets passengers download from its website a customized inflight program guide so they can know what will be on TV during their flight.

Katie Connell, a spokeswoman for Song Airlines, said the Delta-owned carrier has found through customer surveys and other feedback that TV is a service travelers appreciate.

"Many complain the flights are too short," Connell said. "We feel like it is a selling point. Absolutely."

Unlike ground-based satellite TV subscribers, the airlines have negotiated deals that let them pick and choose stations on an la carte basis. Based on customer feedback, for example, Song replaced the Tech TV and Game Show channels with NBC and Fox News.

JetBlue and Frontier buy service from DIRECTV, Song from DISH Network.

The channel lineups are similar, but not the same, from airline to airline. JetBlue and Song carry the same core of sports (ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN Classic), news (NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN), and child-friendly channels (The Learning Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel), as well as A&E, the History Channel, HGTV, and the Weather Channel.

Song is adding a selection of 10 pay-per-view movies and a games channel, as well as MP3 programming with more than 1,600 CD selections.

JetBlue is upgrading its service to 36 channels, adding stations like Bravo, Comedy Central, FX, the Hallmark Channel, games-channel GSN, the SciFi channel, the National Geographic Channel, MTV, and VH1. It also is adding pay-per-view movies on the Fox Movie Channel and 120 channels of free satellite radio.

Ironically, JetBlue says its most popular offering is a fairly static channel that maps the plane's location, altitude, and ground speed.

Another way to watchInMotion Pictures, the company that rents portable DVD players at many of the nation's airports, is offering unlimited movie rentals for $9.99 a month.

The service allows travelers to pick up a DVD player and a movie at a store in Terminal C at Boston's Logan International Airport and either drop it off at any of the other 21 InMotion airport kiosks or return it via Federal Express for nearly $20. The cost of the DVD player is either $12 or $15 a day, depending on the size of the screen.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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