Streaming At 30,000 Feet: One Airline’s Take On In-Flight Entertainment As Travel Sector Departs From Pandemic Doldrums


As air travel continues to rebound from the depths of Covid, a longtime corner of show business — in-flight entertainment — is also being reimagined for the streaming era.

Approaches vary widely. All carriers strike deals for licensed content but many, including major carriers like American and Southwest, have shifted away from seat-back screens, banking on customers accessing film, TV, audio or games on their own devices.

Delta Air Lines is placing a different kind of entertainment bet. It has invested heavily in its seat-back system, which is used by 75% of its 8 million monthly passengers on flights where those screens are available. The company has supplemented standard output deals with major studios and networks with exclusive content deals with Netflix, Spotify, HBO Max, Disney+, Neon, Showtime, A24 and others. Peloton even offers advice on stretching and meditating on board.

Delta grabbed headlines last summer when it teamed with Netflix for a Queer Eye safety video featuring the Fab Five hosts and a Delta employee. The partnership also yielded a new original episode – available only on Delta flights – in which William Holmes, a Delta supply attendant, gets a makeover. 

Delta is the only North American airline offering HBO Max programming and was the first to pact with Neon and A24. Back in 2018, it presented the documentary Three Identical Strangers to passengers at the same time it opened in theaters. 

More than 90% of Delta’s nearly 800 planes now have screens on seat backs, Ekrem Dimbiloglu, Delta’s managing director of in-flight entertainment and Wi-Fi experience, told Deadline. The company has spent about $1 billion over the past decade on that physical network. While many airlines rely on third-party Internet provider Gogo, Delta has partnered with a different company, Viasat, to develop its own Wi-Fi network, in part to expand entertainment options. Starting from scratch last June, the network has surpassed 230 planes. Texting and messaging is free, but full internet access including email is typically $5 per flight. The aim of pushing Wi-Fi in addition to seat-back screens, Dimbiloglu said, is so that the experience on the plane will be “like it is at your house, which is, it’s the screen and your personal device.”

Overall viewing and listening is on a growth curve, aided by overall shifts in habit and leaps forward in technology. Holiday travel this year is expected to continue pushing the industry close to pre-pandemic levels, which is helping to expand the potential audience for streaming, just as it keeps growing on the ground. Movies remain the dominant draw, with 2.2 billion unique views and 37.7 million hours of viewing in 2021 to date. Spotify has been an immediate stimulant, boosting audio use by 15 times over Delta’s prior offerings.

People streaming during travel are a singular demographic, according to Julian Jacobs, co-head of UTA Marketing, which works with Delta to package its offerings. “There is an emotional experience that happens to people when they get on a plane and they get to 30,000 feet,” he said. “The perspective that one gains puts them into a different emotional state than what happens on the ground. During that time, people behave differently and consume content differently.”

Initially brought on to handle aspects of Delta’s business like corporate travel, UTA was asked to make connections for the Atlanta-based airline on the West Coast. The relationship has evolved as the agency has helped forge connections with a wide range of stakeholders, from film festivals to the Motion Picture Academy to media and tech companies.

While he didn’t share any specifics, Dimbiloglu said in-flight viewing data offers some interesting indications of the mindset of travelers. “We see a lot of people who watch more than just the blockbuster movie hit,” he said. In turn, he adds, “everything is on the table” in terms of windows and dealmaking, Dimbiloglu said. “There’s no cookie-cutter approach that we follow.”

Several third-party researchers have estimated the U.S. slice of the multi-billion-dollar in-flight sector is worth several hundred million dollars and is likely to grow significantly this decade.

Tech challenges, mainly slow bandwidth and crude user interfaces have historically been limiting factors for the in-flight business. But steady improvements will soon “unlock opportunities for personalization and content curation,” Jacobs said. “We’re marching toward a world where all of those barriers are removed.” Replicating the way individual customers partake of streaming and internet offerings on the ground will be increasingly possible. 

As Delta and other carriers fortify entertainment offerings, though, it isn’t difficult to imagine entertainment becoming a premium on ticket prices, as is the case with Wi-Fi, food, beverages, extra legroom and so on. Given the dramatic shift of media companies from wholesaling to direct-to-consumer revenue, the notion of some kind of subscription fee being introduced isn’t far-fetched.

Asked about that model, Dimbiloglu said there is no plan for now to charge extra for entertainment. “We’re firm believers that it is part of the Delta experience, and we shouldn’t nickel-and-dime you to gain access to that experience,” he said.

Jill Goldsmith contributed to this report.

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