100 Years in the making: The evolution of inflight entertainment

Viasat looks back on a century of IFE as international live TV service takes off with JetBlue


Viasat’s new international live in-flight TV made its debut in August 2021 on board JetBlue’s first transatlantic flight.

JetBlue passengers flying between New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and either London Heathrow or Gatwick Airport can now access a variety of real-time televised content via their seatback screens and stream unlimited entertainment services on their own mobile devices, thanks to Viasat’s high-capacity satellite network.

Viasat reached this key milestone exactly 100 years after the first-ever in-flight movie was projected on to the front cabin wall of an Aeromarine Airways amphibious aircraft, during a sightseeing flight over Chicago.

From those early days of grainy, silent, one-size-fits-all, black-and-white movies to the infinite high-definition, high-quality choices enjoyed by today’s passengers, it has been quite a century in the world of in-flight entertainment (IFE).

“It’s completely changed from one large screen in the front of the cabin that you had to look over people’s shoulders to see, to a screen every other row that dropped down so that every six people shared a screen,” said Chris Demange, Viasat director of mobile solutions. “Then it went to a seatback level which is, and will probably remain, popular for a long time on international long-haul flights. Now, we’re adding the total personalization on your own device.”

As we celebrate Viasat’s recent international live TV debut, it seems fitting to look back through history at the pioneers who laid the groundwork, and to look forward to what we can expect from IFE and in-flight connectivity in the future.

movie on airplane
A concept drawing of the in-flight entertainment experience on a Pan Am 747 in 1967. Photo used by permission - panam.org

Early days

When that Aeromarine Airways plane took to the skies in 1921, its 11 passengers must have felt privileged to be the first people to watch a moving picture on a flight – even it was only a short promotional film called “Howdy Chicago!”

Four years later, UK-based Imperial Airways showed the first in-flight movie on a scheduled flight between London and Paris. Images from the time show a handful of passengers sitting on wicker chairs watching a projection of “The Lost World.” Amid much fanfare, the event was billed as “The Lost World Above the World.”

Despite these early forays into IFE, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the market really began to take off. Trans World Airlines (TWA) launched the first IFE system on a Boeing 707 in 1961, and began regularly showing movies on scheduled flights. Other airlines began to follow suit.

According to the Pan Am Historical Foundation, U.S. carrier Pan American World Airways started in 1965 to show movies on small TV sets dotted around the cabin to passengers who paid extra for the privilege. It describes the technology at the time as a “take-it-or-leave-it single choice on a cabin bulkhead, heard over pneumatic, stethoscope-like headsets.”

The seatback era

The luxury of watching movies on an individual screen did not become a reality until 1988, when Northwest Airlines introduced the first seatback entertainment system, developed by Airvision Company, on a Boeing 747. Passengers could choose between six linear channels, although programming was shown on a fixed schedule because on-demand content had yet to take off.

Technology continued to evolve throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with personal screens increasingly replacing drop-down, shared monitors, the onset of in-flight connectivity, and, more recently, the bring-your-own-device trend.

Fast-forward to today and passengers on a growing number of flights have access to unlimited choice when it comes to wiling away the hours between departure and arrival – something those early IFE consumers could not have conceived of in their wildest dreams.

Viasat is at the forefront of this latest transition. The launch of our international live TV and internet service with JetBlue demonstrates just how far the IFE market has come.

Michelle Munoz-Talcott is Marketing Director, Global Mobile Solutions at Viasat. She leads marketing and strategy in the Global Mobile Solutions segment, which includes commercial and business aviation as well as maritime. She has over 20 years of marketing experience in the technology and wireless industries including Verizon, Vodafone and Nokia (formally Alcatel-Lucent). Her roles have included working in all facets of marketing and product management as well as international posts in Europe.