In-flight experience can make or break a journey, especially on long-haul flights. A recent global survey of 9,000 respondents in the UK, US, Canada, Scandinavia, France and Germany revealed that 52 percent of passengers end up bored onboard. Almost four in ten regard the time spent in the air as “wasted”. Research findings also revealed that one third would be more likely to choose an airline which offered free live entertainment as part of their flight experience.

In addition, the study showed that 78 percent of passengers admit that people onboard have a great impact on their flight experience. For instance, when a cabin crew member goes out of their way to entertain a passenger during a flight by doing such things as telling jokes, amusing children or even teaching some phrases of their destination’s local language, it greatly improves their flying experience and most people seem to crave more of this.

What is in store for in-flight entertainment?

Today, there is a requirement for airlines to up their game to meet the ever growing demands of their customers. And we are not just talking about a wider duty free selection or more leg space. Passengers now expect both better customer service and unforgettable entertainment. This is why airlines are hunting for new ideas how to entertain passengers, not only to ensure their clients remain loyal, but also to attract new ones.

In the past few years, airlines have started to add more amenities to their repertoire in an attempt to ease the frustrations with air travel. High-speed internet, blockbuster movies, live TV, music and games, are all great, but they just don’t do the trick anymore, so some airlines are really pulling out all the stops to get people excited about flying again. We have already seen the introduction of in-flight showers, spas and massage treatments, three-room suites and double bed cabins, celebrity chef menus, exquisite china and designer uniforms for flight attendants, and the list goes on.

Luxuries aside, we want to talk about airlines that are thinking out-of-the-box and offering pioneering entertainment options, be it an onboard theatre performance, a surprise live concert or a ‘first-row’ seat to the solar eclipse. Some of these ambitious and, let’s be frank, at this point still experimental ideas, might seem a tad over the top. Or are they? And do these new ventures actually achieve the sought-after result or are the airlines in over their heads? How far should the airlines push the limits of in-flight entertainment? And are the risks worth taking? Let’s take a look from the perspective of both the airlines and their customers.

Icelandair’s immersive in-flight theatre

For Icelandair the entire sky is a stage and the passengers are its audience. The transatlantic airline’s latest attempt at re-invention of in-flight entertainment: an immersive live theatre performance at 30,000 feet starring the cabin crew. It was part of a new initiative by the airline, which brought the Icelandic culture and the airline’s brand to the forefront as part of its 80th anniversary celebrations this September.

Icelandair said the service aims to provide an authentic experience for passengers and defeat wasted time whilst travelling. Jón Skafti Kristjánsson, the airline’s marketing and business development director, stated: “By offering fliers a free performance series we aim to attract new passengers and also offer an improved experience for existing ones turning wasted time traveling into time well-travelled.”

The airline partnered with Gideon Reeling, a small theatre company in London, to lead their stage school and “revolutionize” in-flight entertainment with a one-of-a-kind, never been done before 11 hour three-act play performed by professional actors as well as Icelandair’s cabin crew, who have spent the summer learning stage arts.

While some could be skeptical that live theatre performance onboard can be successful, Icelandair’s Kristjánsson assured: “We invested in our staff and offered them innovative stage school training, where they learnt immersive theatre techniques to add to their repertoire of skills in a pioneering approach to improve customer service.”

But the performance, called Ahead of Time, would not be a play in the traditional sense. It was essentially a theatrical display of the company’s profile throughout the decades. “The first performance will be an immersive experience transporting passengers from 1937 right through to the present and may even look to the future, all on one transatlantic flight from London to New York via Iceland,” said Birkir Hólm Guðnason, Icelandair’s CEO, as the play was being developed.


 

The play’s “opening flight” took place on September 8, 2017, aboard an Icelandair flight from London to New York. Free tickets for the “first flight” were being given away in a ballot by willing passengers registering on the airline’s website. The lucky ones were to win return flights from London to New York, including an overnight stay in the Big Apple, a two-night stay in Iceland and $700 spending money.

Aside from the play, the airline also offered passengers travelling between Europe and the US a free seven day stopover in Iceland. By upgrading their boarding pass into the “Stopover Pass” the passengers were entered into a ballot, with which they could win tickets to a range of entertaining performances in Iceland.

Prior to the first performance, the carrier said it was confident that the theatre would capture the imaginations of everyone on board, assuring that the play was being designed so passengers wouldn’t feel as if they are being held captive in an Icelandic tale in the skies above the Atlantic. “We are planning the narrative flow carefully to ensure that the audience can opt in to the experience and how much they engage with it is down to them,” said a spokesperson for the airline to Telegraph Travel.

So did the airline actually pull it off? Gavin Haines, a reporter from The Telegraph, was on the “first flight” to try out the new venture himself. As he later accounted the events to Telegraph Travel, Icelandair had planted a dozen of actors at Heathrow Airport, on the flight to Reykjavik, at Reykjavik Airport and on the flight to New York. According to Haines, having arrived at Heathrow, he soon found himself being thrust into the show performed by everyone around him: from professional actors, the cabin crew, the ground crew, and even the clerks at the check-in counter.

Just minutes after registering at a desk outside his terminal, Haines was met by a variety of characters pretending to be passengers on the flight: from laid-back hippies to briefcase-toting businessmen. For him, it was “a welcome distraction from the tedium of security and the constant feeling of being sold to in the terminal.” Interactions with these characters allowed him to, for at least a moment, forget that he was in an airport. “I forgot to feel nervous about flying. I forgot to drop a Valium, which I always do before take-off,” remembers Haines.

Apparently, to the dismay of anyone that looked to catch a nap or ignore the entire show, the performances involved one-on-one encounters with passengers and even a sing-along. The actors constantly moved around the cabin regaling passengers with their stories. According to Haines, “The characters and their era-specific anecdotes were well thought out and funny – and so were their costumes. There was a bit of Icelandic folklore thrown in and dutiful storytelling about brand Icelandair.” The Icelandair sponsored content surely couldn’t slip anyone’s eyes, as Haines points out: “We were being sold Iceland and we were being sold Icelandair.”

On the other hand, it is quite understandable that the show, involving so many aspects and characters, may have seemed overwrought and hard to follow for some. Haines mentions that the performance, quite inevitably, fizzled out mid-way over the Atlantic, as fatigue and the realities of flying started to set in – the discomfort, a weakening grip on time, those duty free trolleys... Nevertheless, Haines describes the majority of the performance as memorable and great entertainment: “I laughed. I got into it.”

Recognizing that he was skeptical of the mile-high immersive theatre idea at first, having experienced the play, Haines admits he was genuinely entertained: “Truthfully, I don’t remember having more fun on a flight.” According to him, by the time he had landed at New York, the journey felt like “some weird dream,” a dream in which at least for one day flying had been fun again.

Icelandair’s immersive theatre performance was ostensibly a one-off, though it is possible the show may be repeated on other flights in the future. For now, the airline offers “beyond the theater” stopover performances in Iceland. And while many may be unconvinced that live entertainment is the key to a pleasant flying experience, Guðnason, the airline’s CEO, seems pretty exuberant about making travel more entertaining: "We're pleased to pioneer a new form of entertainment and value-added service for passengers."

Live concerts at 35,000 feet onboard Southwest

Another airline turning its aircraft cabin into a live performance stage is Southwest. The airline has always presented itself as the “cheeriest” US airline. Remember the singing stewardesses? Well that’s a thing of the past. A couple of years ago, Southwest implemented a series of concerts that it called Live at 35 featuring one-of-a-kind performances onboard flights at 35,000 feet. It has since had bands such as Imagine Dragons, O.A.R., the Plain White T’s and many others perform surprise concerts on domestic flights. “We take our love for artists on the rise to new heights in our ongoing series featuring one-of-a-kind performances onboard flights at 35,000 feet,” the airline states.

So what do these performances generally look like? After takeoff, a flight attendant casually announces the day’s designated band onboard that will be performing live during the flight. Then, as the seat belt sign goes off, the band members stand up with their instruments and take the stage, or rather the area in front of the jet’s front door. The band proceeds to play their acoustic songs as passengers pull out their smartphones to capture the moment and some start singing along. After the performance, the passengers interact with the band snapping photos and taking autographs.

Southwest puts a lot of thought in highlighting its passion for music: “Music plays a large role in the lives of many of our employees and customers.” The airline’s slogan is “every seat has a story”, and now, it also has a soundtrack. The airline has been involved in various music initiatives over the years – from sponsorships of various music events to Live at 35 concerts onboard its planes.

In addition, through Southwest.fm the airline also has a platform to share its music stories with fans as well as passengers. The site is dedicated to showcasing the talents of musicians through their Live at 35 performances. It is also where artists can connect to the airline’s music team. Essentially, through these musical initiatives, the airline is striving to build a community of musicians, fans and the airline’s customers – a clever strategy without a doubt.

A flight attendant Sandy Wittl recently shared her experience onboard a Southwest flight with her daughter Jenna. As she recounts the events of that day, when the women arrived to check-in at the gate, they were told that their flight from Denver to Sacramento was hosting a Live at 35 concert with Andy Grammer. Wittl remembers her surprise and excitement listening to the performance and meeting the artist himself onboard the plane. She later wrote in a blog post: “What an experience! The atmosphere and energy onboard was amazing, and our customers were so excited – not to mention the crew, too!”

Apparently, the live performances excite not only the cabin crew and the passengers, but also the artists themselves. For instance, one of the many bands that have performed on Southwest Live at 35 was Parmalee. The band later described their experience on their website: “It was a blast! I mean, who gets to do that? It was so much fun!” wrote bandmate Josh McSwain. “Plus the show was sold-out in pre-sale and no one walked out during the performance. It was a perfect gig.”

Seeing a real band perform in the aisle is pretty cool and the airline sees this as continuing. “Our customers love it. Our fans love it. On social, they ask for their favorite bands to perform on a flight,” Michelle Agnew, flight attendant for the airline told the New York Post. In fact, these in-flight performances are all about social media, hoping passengers will snap pictures, take videos and share their experience creating a buzz and reaching out to more and more customers. This is strategic messaging that reinforces the brand and provides great entertainment for the passengers. Assuming, of course, that at least most of them are in the mood for a live band playing during their flight and that they also fancy the music that is being played at all. 

Unique views of the solar eclipse at cruising altitude

If for one day the skies become a stage for some airlines, for others they turn into a space observatory. The total solar eclipse, coined as the Great American Eclipse, that occurred on August 21, 2017, was visible coast to coast in the US, all the way across from Oregon to South Carolina. It gave an opportunity for some US airlines to schedule select flights on the path of the eclipse introducing unique in-flight entertainment and an unforgettable experience for its passengers; and, of course, an opportunity to cash in on the back of the cosmic event.

Alaska Airlines was the first to seize this opportunity by mentioning their eclipse flight back in June. The carrier scheduled a select invitation-only flight for “astronomy enthusiasts and eclipse-chasers” to be the first to witness the eclipse. “As an airline, we are in a unique position to provide a one-of-a-kind experience for astronomy enthusiasts,” Sangita Woerner, the airline’s vice president of marketing, said in a statement. The airline also held a contest on social media available for anybody to win two seats aboard the special charter. To enter, a person needed to submit a short video revealing how much of “an AvGeek or SpaceGeek” they were.

The aircraft took off from Portland and flew west first, before turning back over US soil, giving passengers perhaps the longest eclipse viewing. “Flying high above the Pacific Ocean will not only provide one of the first views, but also one of the best,” Woerner pointed out prior to the flight. In 2016, Alaska Airlines adjusted the path of a flight from Anchorage to Honolulu to allow passengers to view the solar eclipse over the Pacific Ocean.

Southwest announced eclipse flights in July and made them available to many more people, with five select flights that were available to anyone wanting to book one. The airline’s network and schedule planners hand-chose the flights based on the path and peak viewing times of the eclipse. These were from Seattle to St Louis, Portland to St Louis, Denver to Atlanta, Denver to St Louis, and Denver to Nashville.

“The carrier has identified scheduled flights most likely to experience maximum effects of the August 21st eclipse and will give customers on those flights commemorative ‘flare’, including special viewing glasses, will offer cosmic cocktails, and will engage on social media across the atmosphere on Southwest’s gate-to-gate WiFi,” the airline said in a statement.

Warren Qualley, manager meteorology for Southwest, has also been quoted saying “we [the airline] will be unmatched in offering hundreds of seats in the air over the continental US that morning with a potential view of the rare sight,” adding that the airline plans “to showcase the glow of our everyday hospitality in a different light on these celebratory flights.”

Of course, those wanting to view the eclipse from above the ground could time a commercial flight to destinations that coincided along the eclipse’s path of totality, such as those that were offered on that day by Delta or United Airlines. But boarding a flight scheduled specifically for eclipse viewing alongside other “eclipse tourists”, scientists and reporters is surely much more fun, and both Southwest and Alaska Airlines knowingly took advantage of that.

Paul Thompson, a reporter for travel magazine The Points Guy, was on a Southwest flight from Denver to Atlanta to view the eclipse and later wrote about his experience. “The party began the moment we boarded,” said Thompson. He remembers a speaker in the gallery area playing aviation-themed music such as Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

According to Thompson, each seat had a pair of Southwest-branded eclipse viewing glasses. Each row also had a card mentioning the special flight and the cosmic drink specials of the day that were renamed for the occasion (the Bloody Mary as the Red Sky, the mimosa as a Stargazer, and the screwdriver as the Sun Flare).

Shooting stars were hung from the ceiling throughout the cabin and flight attendants were outfitted with celebratory apparel. “It was fun to see the rest of the passengers’ reactions to the decorations and hand-outs as they boarded. Our flight attendants were really into it!” wrote Thompson.

During their usual boarding announcements, the flight attendants referred to the departure as “rocketing”, and when passing out the snacks they offered “space cookies and inter-galactic snacks”. Mid-flight, the cabin crew also engaged in some eclipse-related trivia with the passengers.

Thompson’s flight did indeed fly during the eclipse but he regrets that it wasn’t through the path of totality. A few times during the flight, the pilots banked the plane left and right, so passengers on both sides could catch the view. Even so, what about those who weren’t lucky enough to get a window seat?

Thompson says that the view from his flight was never as good as shown in some videos that later circulated the web. “The sun was really too high to really see, and it wasn’t until I climbed down on the floor in front of my seat that I was able to get a peek at the sun, which was nearly covered at that point, about thirty minutes before landing.”

All in all, Thompson describes the flight as a great experience, although he was a little disappointed that they didn’t fly into the direct shadow of the moon. Regarding the cabin crew, Thompson says that the Southwest flight attendants “did an excellent job of making sure it was a fun time.” In addition, he praises the pilots for making those turns (which requires a special permission from the FAA), so that everyone onboard had a chance at seeing the eclipse.


 

These solar eclipse viewing flights fall into the same category as those capturing the Northern lights. Aurora Borealis can be seen all over northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, and SAS airlines as well as several others carriers have also provided scheduled flights for passengers eager to view this natural wonder. And just as in the case of the solar eclipse flights, these have always paid off, given the fact that the airlines continue to offer and promote these flights.

Fun in the skies: a risk worth taking?

In the battle for airlines to stand out from the pack, each continues to look for innovative ways to make their particular service catch the eye of the consumer. Today there are more in-flight entertainment options than ever before, but what really seems to matter, given the examples above, is the originality of these services.

Sure, there will always be some disgruntled passengers who do not want to be bothered, those who only want to catch some ZZZs and those who prefer to focus on their laptops and other devices during the flight. And there will also always be those travelers who would simply ask to have free meals, more leg space and cheaper fares, rather than seeing the airlines investing in some extravagant in-flight entertainment stints.

So are the airlines exaggerating? Perhaps. But there is no denial that what Icelandair’s in-flight theatre, Southwest’s live concert performances and solar eclipse (as well as Northern lights) flights have done was bold and has paid off, given the positive reactions from the passengers that we have seen, and even from those less impressed. Because one thing for sure – they will never forget their unique experiences and exactly which carrier provided it.

At the bottom of this, the over-the-top entertainment initiatives are a part of a business model, a marketing strategy, and a branding strategy. Thus, the common trend seems to indicate that some airlines will continue to take the gamble and keep experimenting with new in-flight entertainment innovations. How far they will go and how much they will exaggerate is yet to be seen.