24 March 2006

In-flight Entertainment as it should be

I wrote back in August about a disappointing experience with Virgin Atlantic's in-flight entertainment system. I had always held Virgin in high esteem and these problems (and others I had witnessed on a flight to Tokyo) made me feel they were making mistakes. Or were they just ahead of their time and pushing the technology a bit far?

Well, I got my answer on our flights with Emirates to our holiday destination (there's your second and last clue). The system on both flights (a 777-300 and a 777-200) was absolutely top class. While some features were not available until after takeoff as usual, the system worked flawlessly. You could view live cameras to the front and underneath the aircraft - great for take-off and landings. But best of all was the entertainment itself. Something like 100-150 films (a mix of new and classics) were available on a personalised Video-on-demand basis. I can't stress how important this is - to be able to pause the film when you need to. Furthermore, the audio component was even richer with hundreds of channels (mixes) and hundreds of albums available, whether you wanted 50 tracks from David Bowie or Madonna's latest album in full. I have to confess to not using my iPod for the whole flight.

And in case you were wondering, this was all in Economy (with pretty decent legroom also). Perhaps the only gripe is the display quality on the screen (the same signals displayed vastly clearer on overhead cabin LCDs). I'm afraid Virgin has lost the crown in this regards.

The flight back however demonstrated that there is still hope for others. While both planes were newish 777-300's they used an older system similar to the last Virgin version (pre Video-on-demand). One channel was unwatchable (the only film I wanted to see) for some technical reason, and music choice was considerably less. So until the better system is installed throughout, I would hold back from recommending Emirates unreservedly. But that aside, this airline has really come from nowhere to offer perhaps the best service in the World (especially in Economy) - usually at decent prices, a flexible timetable (13 flights a day to Dubai from 5 UK airports!) and with excellent onward connection options and timings through the superbly efficient Dubai airport. Sir Richard, take note!

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