Happy 50th birthday, in-flight entertainment

By John Walton, July 20 2011

Fifty years ago, the very first in-flight movie was shown on a Boeing 707 flying between Los Angeles and New York.

TWA, a US airline that disappeared from the skies ten years ago when it merged into American Airlines, was the first airline with in-flight movies, projected on the screen at the front of the cabin.

The history-making in-flight movie was the Lana Turner classic By Love Possessed.

Back in 1961, movies were only for first class passengers as they reclined in deeply-cushioned seats.

Surprisingly, TWA's successor American Airlines still uses the same kind of entertainment -- everyone watching a screen with one program playing -- in First Class on even its newest Boeing 737 aircraft. Of course, the overhead screens are now fold-down colour LCDs rather than 16mm projected film.

Qantas, by contrast, has on-demand individual seatback screens on many of its Boeing 737 planes.

In another historical parallel, if you look carefully you'll notice that the nose of the old 707 (first flown in 1957) is almost identical to the modern Boeing 737.

Piergiuliano Chesi & Phillip Capper
There's a 737 and a 707 here...but which one is which? It's hard to tell from the nose...
Piergiuliano Chesi & Phillip Capper

Cabin layouts on single-aisle planes haven't changed much either: first class at the front was in a 2-2 layout, while economy (or "coach" as it was called then) was 3-3 at the back.

On the plus side, you can now plug in your IBM Selectric Typewriter (or your iPad) with in-flight power, and on some airlines you can even send (e)mail. Now that's progress.

(Tip of the jaunty 1960s hat to Wired)

John Walton
John Walton

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

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15 Apr 2011

Total posts 586

Um Qantas has 2 737s flying around domestically with PTVs... Sorry if this is really nitpicky but that's hardly 'many' considering they have something like 60 in the fleet including the older -400 aircraft.

Great article though - to think that on most international flights we now get a thousand options at our fingertips!!


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