Image: Vrigin America
John Decker  /  AP
Who needs a window seat on Virgin America? The company's in-flight entertainment includes movies, satellite TV, cable TV, music videos, radio, games -- even books.
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updated 10/28/2011 9:50:54 AM ET 2011-10-28T13:50:54

While almost every nanosecond of the flying experience presents potential hassles — from figuring out true pricing when searching for fares to dealing with chaotic luggage pick-up when you finally get home — the few hours in the air can actually provide some of the least stressful waking moments of our lives. It's usually relatively quiet and working is almost impossible, which leaves you plenty of time to just sit there — and watch some movies.

Of course, on some airlines this is a more pleasurable (and dependable) experience than others. The larger and older an airline's fleet, the more variation in the in-flight system you will see from one trip to another. Younger and smaller airlines like JetBlue and Virgin America (the latter owns only 42 planes) are not dealing with a fleet of aircraft of very differing ages and models that came together over time through a series of purchases, mergers and the like. Folks who travel on "legacy" airlines can sometimes encounter two or three different aircraft, with multiple configurations, on the same route. Going out you may have a dedicated seat-back system; coming back you may have to peer over the top of the seat in front of you to see the screen; then on your next flight, there may be no screens at all. This makes it much harder for a legacy airline to offer a consistent in-flight entertainment system.

That said and understood, here is our roundup of the best economy-class in-flight entertainment offerings in the air right now, as well as some information about what you might encounter on popular airlines that don't make the best-of list, but do move a lot of passengers.

Virgin America
Virgin America has been voted the airline with the best in-flight entertainment system a few times now by various publications and airline associations. It's no surprise: No other airline shares a name and ownership with an entertainment company. If these guys got beat by, say, a company named WestJet, it would be a bit embarrassing (although WestJet does a pretty good job, as noted below).

Really, it blows everything else away (here's an overview of the system). It has it all, with an unusually easy to navigate touch-screen system, right down to a seat-to-seat chat system that allows you to message friends and family in other parts of the plane. Movies, satellite TV, cable TV, music videos, radio, games, Google Maps and even books are offered — not to mention the ability to run a tab on your food and drink, and plugs in every seat.

The whole show takes place on a 9-inch screen that is just about the same size as an iPad, and everything except some first-run movies is included in the cost of your airfare on all flights. No one else comes close.

Virgin is planning to up the ante in 2012 by offering all of its in-flight entertainment not only in the seat-back screen, but also over passengers' own personal devices as well; read more here.

JetBlue
Shortly after its launch a little more than a decade ago, JetBlue acquired the company LiveTV, and subsequently installed DIRECTV on all JetBlue planes, with a dedicated screen in every seat. A couple of years later, the airline added satellite radio, TV shows and movies to the offerings. For a discount carrier, this was a bold move, but as I remember it, JetBlue got as many headlines for its in-flight additions as it did for adding numerous new routes at the time.

While a number of other airlines have copied (or tried to copy) JetBlue's in-flight offerings, JetBlue has stayed the course very steadily, and currently offers free in-flight seat-back TV's with 36 channels of DIRECTV, 100 channels of SiriusXM radio and first-run movies for $5.99 per movie on domestic flights (these are free on most international flights). Next, JetBlue is working on putting Wi-Fi on all planes.

Singapore Airlines
Unlike most of the other airlines reviewed, I have not flown with Singapore personally, and in fact I have only one close friend who has. I suspect many of our readers have not and will not either, but its award-winning in-flight entertainment program is worth mentioning. The new KrisWorld system is pretty advanced; including all the now-expected movies, audio, TV programs, games and radio programs, the system even has a USB port so you can use the system as a personal media player, photo viewer or PDF reader. Some aircraft have up to 80 movies, hundreds of CDs and even audio books, and feature iPod and iPhone connectivity, all offered in a dozen different languages. The system offers language learning programs from Berlitz, business and cultural tutorials, Rough Guides, and live connection, gate and baggage claim information.

Air Canada
With a distinctly Canadian modesty, Air Canada offers a great in-flight entertainment system that is solid across the board and free for all flights. Since 2004, Air Canada has quietly been offering a free seat-back entertainment system, including 100 CD's of music audio, satellite radio, flight path information, 30+ movie choices on domestic flights and 72+ movie choices on international flights, 100 hours of TV shows, premium cable channels including HBO/CBC, at least four kids' movie choices, and several hours of kids' TV. Since 2009, Air Canada has offered all this from gate to gate, without turning off the system for take-off and landing.

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Emirates
I know no one at all who has flown with Emirates, but they win as many awards as Virgin America does, so it sounds pretty good. On most routes, you can choose from more than 100 movies, dozens of games, 100 hours of music, current flight information and even "great views from our aircraft-mounted cameras" — nice!

Honorable mentions
Due in part to the fleet diversity issues noted in the intro above, Virgin Atlantic's system is not quite as hip as Virgin America's, but it holds its own; children in particular are treated well, with a goody bag and dedicated kids' channels. The system is included in the cost of the airfare in all seat classes, so everyone is happy.

Lufthansa offers a free in-flight system that offers up to 18 movies, 35 TV programs, 30 radio channels and 100 CD's, with menus in 10 languages. They also have "KidsFun" programming that includes movies, music and audiobooks for kids.

The Canadian airline WestJet has an almost identical system to JetBlue, with live seat-back TV in every seat and pay-per-view movies on flights over 2.5 hours. You do have to buy a headset as you board the plane (or bring your own, as many folks do these days — although you never know about plug compatibility), but you can use it on any future WestJet flights. WestJet also has a very good onboard menu to boot.

Frontier offers a similar system for $6 per flight, including 24 channels of DIRECTV on in-seat screens.

Icelandair offers a heap of movies, TV and music for the cost of headphones, and you can keep the headphones so your next flight is free.

Finally, Alaska Airlines offers a standalone "digEplayer" that is a bit like an iPad, which you can reserve in advance for $6, or purchase on the plane for $8 (Internet access provided by Gogo Inflight will cost you another $7.95). There is limited availability, so you could get shut out, and to reserve a player you have to register with Alaska, so it is a bit of an ordeal just to watch a movie. Despite the price and the possible hassle of reserving and making room in your seat for the player, the approach is interesting, so I wanted to include it here.

The legacy airlines
When I wrote American Airlines to ask for help figuring out the entertainment offerings across its vast and varied fleet, a rep had to send me six Word documents to cover everything, whew. On the whole, save for on its newest planes, American offers a pay system of overhead screens.

Delta is trying hard to offer some variety, with overhead movies and short programs on most flights accompanied by seat-back screens that let you watch TV and documentaries — but everything is on a pay-per-view basis. So the TV programs cost $2 per episode, and documentaries $2 per film, etc. It's a good try, but the variety is limited, and the costs could climb on a longer flight.

Talk about a mixed bag of offerings — the Continental and United merger creates something of a Frankenstein's monster of aircraft and system configurations. Some aircraft offer one system in business and first class, and another in economy class, and even different screen sizes — on the 757 aircraft, for instance, the seat-back screen in BusinessFirst is 15 inches, but only 9 inches in coach class. Most of the entertainment offerings are serviceable if unremarkable.

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