It’s been a big week for in-flight entertainment, with announcements by two airlines that are shaking up what’s on your seat-back screen. But is it enough to break travelers from their iPad obsessions?

By Nikki Ekstein
June 12, 2015
Credit: © Weerawath / iStockPhoto

Just when you thought airlines were stripping away in-flight perks—particularly those seat-back TV screens—it turns out that entertainment at 35,000 feet is getting an upgrade. This week, twin announcements from Virgin and JetBlue are expanding the range of content that travelers can access in the skies—Virgin with an Android-powered system called Red and JetBlue with exclusive rights to video content from Vice.

Both airlines are building on systems that are already top-of-the-line. Since 2007, Virgin has had a socially-enabled seatback system with features such as “send a drink” and interactive games, while JetBlue has been in the headlines for its pioneering Fly-Fi program, which supplies a high-speed connection on a majority of the company’s planes (fleet-wise integration is underway). So in many ways, it’s no surprise to see these players pushing the envelope further. If legacy carriers like Delta and America joined in on the trend, we’d be even happier campers (er, passengers).

But for now, here’s what to expect:

Virgin’s new Red Beta system will maintain all the features that loyal fliers on that airline know and love—live TV programming, games—but with higher definition touchscreens and tons more variety. Netflix hits like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards are being added to the lineups, so you can binge watch entire seasons on a transcontinental flight. And surround sound capabilities will make the experience a bit more robust.

As for JetBlue, Vice’s video content will change monthly, with family-friendly features that can be streamed on personal devices or accessed on seat-back screens. It’s one of many media partnerships that the airline has introduced as of late—others include the Wall Street Journal and DirectTV.

The real question that remains is whether airlines will see a return on their investment when it comes to in-flight entertainment. The more that passengers rely on bringing their own content, and the more that airlines add electrical outlets to seats (thanks, Virgin!), the less relevant these updates become. Exclusive content and variety will be the keys to keeping in-flight entertainment alive, and the relative worth of each strategy is only beginning to play out in the skies.

Nikki Ekstein is an associate editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @nikkiekstein.