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Want to go to the movies? There's an airplane for that

Delta, United and other leading airlines offer more options than ever, from recent blockbusters to under-the-radar indies.
Illustration of airplane passengers eating popcorn and watching movies.
Laughter, tears and shock as passengers watch in-flight movies.Jamie Coe / for NBC News

Jon Nickel-D'Andrea, an ad salesman who lives in Seattle, hasn't been to a multiplex in over a year. He'd be hard-pressed to tell you the name of the last movie he saw in a brick-and-mortar theater.

But that's not to say Nickel-D'Andrea is out of the loop on recent releases. In the last year, he watched "a couple dozen" movies on long flights, from some of the most recent crop of Oscar contenders to obscure foreign-language titles.

"It doesn't make sense for my husband and I to spend 40 or 50 bucks to go to a theater — the price of tickets, 12 dollars for soda and popcorn, plus driving and parking and all that," he said. "But movies on a plane? What better way to spend a 16-hour flight? There's no excuse. There's nowhere else for me to go."

Nickel-D'Andrea, who also blogs for the travel site No Mas Coach, isn't the first American consumer to savor the pleasures of the in-flight flick. But in a world of rising movie ticket prices and overwhelming on-demand video options, some consumers have embraced binge-watching at 30,000 feet.

For some of the roughly 48 percent of American adults who fly commercial, the sky is a perfectly acceptable alternative to the multiplex, and in-flight entertainment has become a valuable cottage industry projected to be worth more than $7 billion by 2023, according to market research published by the firm MarketsandMarkets. Add the fact that the vast majority of movies are free (excluding the entry cost of airfare, of course), and consumers see a good deal.

The major airlines, for their part, have been happy to feed the appetite.

Delta, JetBlue and other leading carriers have revved up their investments in in-flight content, licensing a growing slate of blockbusters, award winners and family-friendly fare from Hollywood studios such as Warner Bros., Disney and Paramount soon after they play in traditional theaters, sometimes more quickly than the major streaming services.

Alaska Airlines, for instance, recently doubled its movie lineup, jumping from 137 titles last year to 415 as of this month, according to David Scotland, the company’s product manager of in-flight entertainment.

The experience occasionally resembles couch-bound Netflix-surfing: some flyers idly scroll through page after page of titles sorted by genre, and some airlines bundle films by theme, not unlike the algorithmic picks on streaming platforms. American Airlines, for instance, plans to roll out a curated list of movies celebrating Pride Month in June.

"We certainly see a lot of people gravitate toward what I would call comfort content," including romances and comedies from the 1990s and early 2000s, said Lally Meck, the head of entertainment and connectivity partnerships at United Airlines.

The content arms race comes as some consumers are turned off by the expense of a night at their local theater. After all, the average national ticket price crept to an all-time high of $9.11 last year. In major markets such as Los Angeles or New York, a ticket costs as much as $16.50, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Other flyers simply don't have time to catch movies during their initial run in theaters. David Leebron, the president of Rice University in Houston for the last 15 years, has an understandably busy schedule. That's why United Airlines has lately become his personal cinematheque.

In the last year, he has plowed through indie comedies, acclaimed documentaries like "Three Identical Strangers," and some foreign-language oddities, such as the 2007 Uruguayan film "The Pope's Toilet."

"The ability to watch some really interesting movies that may not get to the theater in Houston, or that I just don't get a chance to see during their theatrical run, that's something I love," Leebron said.


Much like Leebron, Arizona-based optometrist Ryan Wiggins relies on British Airways to get his fix of art house or offbeat fare that otherwise might be limited to select cinemas in the major metropolitan markets.

Wiggins, 37, who flies to Europe several times a year, recently took in the indie royalty dramas "The Favourite" and "Mary Queen of Scots." (The latter film was released in select theaters by Focus Features, a division of Universal Pictures, which like NBC News is owned by Comcast.)

Since the boutique art-house theater in Scottsdale, where Wiggins lives, shuttered a few years ago, British Airways has given him a chance to discover lesser-known titles, such as "City of Gold," a 2016 documentary about the late Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, and the French crime drama "Au revoir là-haut.”

“The Wife,” last year’s Glenn Close-fronted literary drama, received a limited theatrical release last August and took in a modest $9 million at the domestic box office. But it has since become a virtually ubiquitous in-flight movie, drawing more attention to a relatively niche project that might have gotten lost in the superhero shuffle.

Frequent flyers tend to develop their own rituals around in-flight movie-watching. Wiggins watches films simultaneously with his partner, making sure to hit both play buttons at the same time. "We'll coordinate, we'll talk about it afterwards, we'll do little reviews together," he said.

Jason Ma, an actor and writer who splits his time between Los Angeles and New York, keeps a running list on his iPhone's Notes app of movies he wants to see during long flights — the in-flight edition of the Netflix streaming queue.

"I'll think, 'Well, I have a flight in a week from now, I might as well see what American Airlines is offering. They change up their list of movies every month, so I'm always cognizant to check before I board," Ma said.

Ma, who said that planes have become his "main outlet for watching movies," still makes a point of going to the theater to pay for what he described as "special movies that needed to get my money," such as last year's "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Black Panther.”


Of course, flyers see some downsides to in-flight binge-watching. Wiggins, the optometrist, said he was sometimes frustrated by loud announcements on the public address system that pause videos or cut into the soundtrack. Ma, for his part, said he found the pre-roll advertisements repetitive and annoying.

In-flight movies — whether they’re playing on seatback monitors or beamed to personal mobile devices — are unlikely to become popular with devoted cineastes (or Steven Spielberg, for that matter) who prize the large-scale visuals and premium sound quality of a conventional theater or sophisticated home entertainment system. Some fans would argue that effects-driven spectacles — “Black Panther,” the latest “Avengers” — deserve to be seen on a massive IMAX screen or in 3D.

But for the most part, the flyers who spoke to NBC News described themselves as casual moviegoers for whom in-flight entertainment was a welcome diversion and efficient way to pass the time as they traverse the globe.

“I think what we’re seeing today on airlines, even if the conditions aren’t ideal, is a set of choices that enable us to get reacquainted with what’s really wonderful about movies,” Leebron said. That’s especially true of flyers whose phones aren’t equipped with Wi-Fi, freeing them from the usual earthbound distractions.

Nickel-D'Andrea, the ad sales specialist, said that in-flight movies have essentially displaced Netflix and Hulu in his media diet — and he's looking forward to finally sitting down to watch some tried-and-true American classics.

"'Lawrence of Arabia' is up next, I'll watch that on my flight," he said. "You know, I recently watched 'Gone with the Wind' on a flight. When are you going to sit down for a four-hour movie? I don't think I would've sat down to watch it at home."