Continental tunes in and adds TVs to every seat

The legacy airlines are finally entering the 1990s: They are getting TVs at every seat.

In April, Continental quietly began installing DirecTV screens at every seat (something JetBlue has had since the start of this decade).

Right now, about 15 planes have the new entertainment option, but according to USA Today, Continental will have the feature on about 220 of its jets (almost its entire fleet) in about 18 months. That means soon, when you fly Continental Airlines, you'll have 77 channels to flip through, with the signal beamed to your jet from the ground.

The news doesn't only herald salvation for legions of bored and pop culture-deprived adult travelers (every episode of Discovery Health's "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant" I have ever seen, I saw at 30,000 feet). It's also a godsend for parents of small children, who'll be able to simply switch on Cartoon Network when their kids start getting restless and noisy.

Flight attendants know that one unintended happy consequence of adding televisions to a flight is that they tend to placate the passengers. Television, like religion, is an opiate of the masses.

There is a catch. Unlike upstart carriers JetBlue and Virgin America, which invite passengers to watch for free, Continental has decided to make TV available only for a fee: $6 unless you're in a higher class of service or you're a frequent flier.

Continental has posted a list of the available channels on its Web site, and it's a hefty one (many people don't even get the Fox Reality Channel at home, let alone in 17B), but there's one notable hole: The only major network that isn't in the lineup is ABC.

The major airlines have avoided installing these systems on a widespread basis up until now, although Delta did dabble in a 24-channel version when it launched, and quickly grounded, its spin-off airline Song. Installation costs $1 million to $1.5 million per plane and adds about 1,000 pounds to the flying weight, which burns more fuel.

I would much prefer being able to bask in the pleasant idleness of satellite TV than Wi-Fi. One huge reason is the airlines might have added Internet capability, but most of them haven't added outlets for my laptop, which makes actually surfing on the new systems impractical. (Continental's new systems will be adding those, too, but the other airlines usually lack them.)

Still, access to the Web only costs $100,00 to $250,000 per plane and weighs about 150 pounds, so that's why we've got a lot of those and few TVs.

Given those numbers, I can understand why Continental would decide to charge customers for the service. Then again, I would have hoped the airline would have recognized that if you have a great product, you're more likely to attract more business.

The foreign-flagged carriers have offered TVs for more than a decade now, which is why I favor them, but when I board an American Airlines flight to Europe or a United flight to Asia, I'm still likely to wind up staring at the upholstery of the seat in front of me for nine hours. In terms of the aviation global market in 2009, it's embarrassing for the American carriers.

I'm lucky enough to live in New York, JetBlue's hub, and I can't count the number of times I chose that airline over another simply because it offers on-board TVs without charging me. JetBlue may not be making that extra $6 off me every time I fly, but it's probably made hundreds, if not thousands, more because I choose that carrier over any other simply because it offers that soothing feature -- even if the fare is a little more.

Still, Continental has made a good start down a positive road, so I have to congratulate it for the commitment. Our major airlines move in a herd, as we recently discovered when they nearly simultaneously hiked baggage fees to $20 for the first bag (something that JetBlue, again, hasn't done).

When it comes to our flying fleet, there's not an original thought under the sun. Look for the other big carriers to start installing TVs now that Continental is doing it.
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