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Wendy is an IFE Agent responsible for aggregating airline news specifically related to Inflight entertainment. She compiles stories relevant to business travelers, airline industry folks, marketers and tech geeks. IFE News doesn't create original content, but rather posts compelling editorial from global media outlets.

Entertainment Options, Some Inescapable

By Joe Sharkey

NOT long ago, I was on the subway in New York and a man started playing “Lady of Spain” on the accordion while his girlfriend rattled a tambourine and passed the cup. They were not bad, though I hadn’t heard “Lady of Spain” on the accordion since the days of Ed Sullivan.

But the fact is, I was part of a captive audience and I found them annoying — and I was going only a short distance.

Imagine the same sort of distraction on an airplane flight.

Maybe I’m getting too cranky, but I’m not reacting at all enthusiastically to a Southwest Airlines program, now in its second year, called “Live in the Vineyard.” Southwest describes it as a way to “revolutionize the concept of in-air entertainment.” A Southwest jet becomes a “concert venue to host live performances,” the carrier says.

So you’re sitting there on the airplane minding your own business, reading or gazing at your iPad or whatever, and all of a sudden some performers get up, drag their instruments out of the overhead bins and put on a concert. Right on the plane.

“We put these recording artists on our planes and surprise our customers with in-flight concerts at 35,000 feet,” explained a Southwest spokeswoman, Michelle Agnew. She said the program has been well received. “Our customers absolutely love it.”

The performances, branded as Live@35, are part of a promotional partnership with Live in the Vineyard, a series of musical, cultural and culinary events held in California wine country. Various live performances will “pop up” on select Southwest flights in the two months before the next Live in the Vineyard three-day event in early November.

Here, according to Ms. Agnew, is how the in-flight performances work: “A Southwest Airlines representative gives a quick announcement, ‘Hey, we have a special treat for you today, a surprise in-flight concert through our Live in the Vineyard partnership,’ ” she said. “The band will play two or three songs — however long the flight will allow. It’s through the P.A. system, so it’s not your most technology-driven experience, but it’s very organic.”

O.K., as I said, I’m cranky. I live to read or work in peace on an airplane. And the occasional surprise live concert aside, I was actually more interested in Southwest Airline’s overall approach to in-flight entertainment, especially after a lot of readers reacted to my column last week about international fliers who never actually go to the movies, but instead do most of their movie watching on airlines that supply high-end in-seat entertainment systems with large selections of on-demand movies and other features.

Southwest, on the other hand, works with Row 44, a company that provides satellite-based in-flight Wi-Fi and has installed that system on about 300 of Southwest’s 737 jets, more than half its fleet. Southwest doesn’t offer seat-back screens.

Instead, passengers who bring their own laptops, tablets or other personal devices on board can pay $5 for Wi-Fi connections. While Row 44 and Southwest are working to develop proprietary programming, and the Southwest system currently offers some news and sports channels, Southwest’s approach underlines a basic question for the airline industry: Will the expensive embedded seat-back systems eventually give way to simpler systems in which passengers simply use their own mobile gear with in-flight Wi-Fi?

There are a lot of issues to work out, including content licensing and piracy concerns, before that might become the norm. One of the basic problems right now is the limited availability on most airlines of electrical power ports to allow fliers to charge batteries on those personal devices, especially on longer flights.

That was a point made by one reader, a woman, in response to last week’s column. “Just provide power outlets! We will bring our own content.”

Southwest does not have in-seat power outlets, “but we do have the charging stations in our gate areas, where we encourage people to power up,” said Whitney Eichinger, a Southwest spokeswoman.

When first exploring the options in providing onboard Wi-Fi, “we had a lot of questions about in-flight entertainment,” Ms. Eichinger said. “We said, ‘O.K., are we going to put televisions or other technology in the seat backs of our aircraft, which of course require updating, as any technology does, and also adds weight to the aircraft?’

“So we decided, Wi-Fi is our option,” she said. “Lots of people bring their own devices on board, and it’s a lot easier to update technology from afar without having all of that extra weight put onto the aircraft” from seat-back screens and the other hardware required to operate such systems.


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