Image: In-flight movie
Mark Duncan  /  AP file
Airlines don't charge for movies anymore, but there are hazards to in-flight entertainment.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 1/16/2007 11:25:17 AM ET 2007-01-16T16:25:17

Have you ever watched a movie on an airplane and thought the content was a bit inappropriate? Over the years, I’ve seen disaster movieslike “Poseidon,” “Titanic,” “Air Force One” and even a really bad one called “Turbulence.” What’s next, “Snakes on a Plane”? “United 93”? I think a good rule of thumb for in-flight entertainment would be to avoid movies in which passengers die in a mass-transportation disaster. Same goes for the airport lounge. I still remember returning from my military service overseas, a long time ago. As I waited for my flight out of Frankfurt in the USO lounge, they played the old classic “Airport 75.”

When the airlines stopped charging for in-flight movies, was it any surprise the selection got worse? I can remember once announcing our in-flight movie as “Cocoon: The Return,” and being positive that I had seen it on television the night before.

And how many times have I had a flight full of businessmen and businesswomen, and the only movie available was an animated flick aimed at children under 10? Who chooses these movies? Why not mix it up a bit and pick some movies that appeal to all ages, have received good reviews and yet haven’t already been seen by more than 100 million people? I’m sure there are plenty of them out there.

But then again, everyone’s a critic, so it’s lucky that many airplanes now have multichannel video systems. The movie selection is more diverse, and you should be able to find something interesting to watch. Just be aware that many airlines do not censor or edit the movies they offer on their multichannel systems. I’m all in favor of minimal censorship provided the film’s rating is clearly understood beforehand. The onboard personal video systems also play movies that have not been censored. When these systems were relatively new, some flight attendants would unwittingly play the uncensored videos on the main system. One showing of “Monster’s Ball” was enough to change that.

Here are eight tips for getting the most out of your in-flight movie.

1. Listen up. Use your own headset. Many passengers board the airplane listening to personal stereos, but when it comes time to watch the movie, they reach for the airline's free headset in the seat-back pocket. Believe me, your headset is at least 10 times better and probably a whole lot cleaner.

2. Unplug later. A lot of people don’t plug in the headset because they have bogusly decided they won’t watch the movie (“I think I’ll just finish this report/write my column/read this self-help book.”) Of course, they then find themselves subconsciously watching the movie anyway. When they finally do plug in the headset, they’ve missed half the action and can’t follow the plot. So, listen first and decide later whether you want to watch the movie or do something else.

3. Turn down the lights. If you’re not enjoying the view outside and you are sitting next to the window, lower your window shade. It will create a more movie-like atmosphere and improve everyone’s viewing.

4. Give it a shot. If you haven’t heard of the movie before, and have nothing better to do, try it out. Some of the best movies I’ve ever seen are the ones I’d never heard of before. Sometimes, when your expectations are nil, you get a pleasant surprise.

5. Get some sleep. For me, the best way to fall asleep on an airplane is to watch a bad movie. Halfway through, your mind wanders off into your own personal plot and pretty soon you’re down for the count. Though this is common knowledge among flight crews, it doesn’t pay to say so. One flight attendant got fired for announcing, “Today we have a movie that will surely put you to sleep.” Unfortunately, the movie’s screenplay writer was aboard that flight and he vigorously complained to management.

6. Raise your hand. If the movie starts at any point other than the beginning, let a crew member know immediately, as we will be busy doing other things and probably won’t notice. On one flight, I started the movie at the end by mistake and nobody ever let me know. When asked, a few passengers said they thought it was a preview. Meanwhile, I had just ruined an exciting ending for everyone.

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7. Plan your break. If you desperately have to go to the bathroom, don’t wait until the end of the movie, as this is typically rush hour for the lavatories and you may find yourself in agony at the back of a lengthy line.

8. Bring backup. The electronics aisles are full of portable DVD players, laptop computers and video iPods. If you don’t like the onboard movie selection, take matters into your own hands.

Things have changed since the days of the two-tube headset, but with modern technology has come a host of new problems and interesting situations. Take live TV, for example. While this is a great thing, especially for must-see sports programs, how would you like to have been aboard the JetBlue flight whose passengers got to watch their own life-or-death drama on TV when the plane’s landing gear failed to descend? If I were preparing for an emergency landing, I wouldn’t want to hear a news analyst discuss the worst-case scenario, would you?

Video games are great, too, but I am not so sure about them in flight. Have you ever listened to two people play a combat game without the volume? It sounds like a bad porno movie. Sure, the players have their headsets on, but what the other passengers hear is something like, “No, no, no! Yeah, yeah, there ya go. Oh, that’s it, just like that, OOOOOOOHHHHH!!!”

So maybe skip the video games. Next time, sit back, relax and enjoy the in-flight movie, even if you’ve already seen it. It will pass the time and it will give your laptop solitaire or Sudoku skills a rest. Save those for your wait in the airport terminal, when you will really need them.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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