Even with a kooky safety video and a variety of film offerings, long flights can still be boring.
But Icelandair is trying something new: An 11-hour immersive theater production took place last week on a flight from London to New York, with an on-the-ground bonus performance during the layover in Reykjavik.
“We’ve made theater in unusual places but never made a show that started in one country, bounced to another, and ended up in a third on the same day,” said Kate Hargreaves, Founder of Gideon Reeling, the London-based theater company that helped develop the program.
The cast was a mix of professional actors along with pilots, engineers, accountants, ground workers, cabin crew, and other real airline employees who had volunteered to attend a special stage school to prepare for the event.
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The characters they played ranged from film stars and flight attendants from various decades to business and leisure travelers, a perky party planner, a vulcanologist, and a farmer — as well as flight attendants from the past, present, and future.
And the performance, which reeled out in entertaining, story-filled, one-on-one encounters at check-in, at the gate and during the flight, hopscotched through time, with some actors playing multiple characters.
There were even a few sing-a-longs and several Icelandic-themed meals during the “Ahead in Time” performance.
Passengers met and had an opportunity to interact with Maria, dressed in a stylish suit from the 1950s, who said she’d be flying the plane; Richie and Cynthia, hippies from the 1960s who met on the road and were hoping to get to Woodstock; Alex, an exuberant, if disorganized, backpacker from the 1990s in search of his passport; and numerous grandchildren and other far-flung relatives of Edda Johnson, a world traveler and former Icelandair flight attendant who had invited everyone to her birthday party but (spoiler alert) was too busy traveling the world to show up.
Icelandair’s one-off immersive in-flight performance (and a series of on-the-ground events in Iceland over the next six months) was sparked by a recent UK-based study in which the majority of air travelers reported being bored during their flights. Three quarters of the study participants thought the people on the plane, especially the cabin crew, could have a greater hand in making the flight more enjoyable.
Responding to that research, “Our program aims to transform wasted time while traveling into time well-traveled,” said Icelandair CEO Birkir Hólm Guðnason, “We’re pleased to pioneer a new form of entertainment and value-added service for passengers.”
Icelandair is not the first airline to try perking up the journey with live in-flight entertainment. In the 1970s, some airlines had piano lounges on their 747s. When he performed on a special flight in June, 2010, singer/songwriter James Blunt broke a (since-eclipsed) record for the world’s highest live music gig. And in July, 2016 Virgin America live-streamed a performance by the band Local Natives for a planeload of passengers headed to Lollapalooza in Chicago.
Over the years, passengers on other airlines have also been entertained with live music concerts, in-flight comedy sets and pop-up fashion shows, as well as plenty of unplanned performances presented by all manner of misbehaving passengers.
“That notion of offering passengers some sort of ‘surprise and delight’ is great,” said travel industry expert Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research, but he notes some passengers would rather use their in-flight time to work, rest, relax, and make their own choices for entertainment.
Still, Harteveldt approves of Icelandair’s effort to be creative and stand out from other airlines, especially as the competition for flights to and through Iceland from WOW air and other airlines heats up.
And while live theater in the aisles might be seen by some as a negative in the air, Harteveldt believes the airline’s Stopover Pass program, which gives passengers entry to special art, culture, and sporting events through April 2018, can be a huge positive on the ground.
“I applaud them for thinking of different ways to distinguish themselves, offering this value-added amenity so that passengers see Icelandair as passenger-centric,” he said.
Harriet Baskas is an NBC News contributor who writes about travel and the arts.