Sports Fans Get Their Own Bar in the Sky

Television screens at each seat with live satellite broadcasts are a feature that has changed the in-flight experience for sports fans and nonfans alike, virtually creating a sports bar in the sky.


Dave Adams of Brooklyn had his eyes glued to the NCAA men's basketball tournament game between Ohio State and Memphis last weekend . He threw a celebratory fist in the air as Ohio State center Greg Oden, his favorite player on the court, made his way to the basket. A cold beer sat to Adams's side, and he held a bag of chips in one hand.

But Adams was not in his living room. Nor was he at a sports bar. He was cruising at 19,000 feet, or about 6,000 meters, on JetBlue Airways to Washington Dulles from New York's Kennedy International Airport, a thick layer of clouds visible through the window beside him.

Television screens at each seat with live satellite broadcasts are a feature that has changed the in-flight experience for sports fans and nonfans alike, virtually creating a sports bar in the sky. Fans can follow the action, but they do not always do it discreetly.

''I can always tell when something exciting has happened, good or bad,'' said Natalie Ordakowski, a flight attendant for Frontier Airlines. ''Everyone lets out a huge roar. They throw their hands up in the air or tease one another. We definitely sell a lot more liquor when games are on.''

Joan Vincenz, the managing director for product marketing at Delta Air Lines, said, ''We have people whooping or crying when their team is winning or losing.''

Major sporting events like the NCAA tournament or the World Cup stir fans' passions, and some of those fans find themselves on airplanes during their teams' games.

''This is the reason I travel with JetBlue,'' said Adams. ''It's better than whatever foolish movie they usually have on planes.''

JetBlue, which offers 36 channels of DirecTV, said ESPN consistently ranked among the three most-watched channels. On Frontier, where customers pay $5 to use a 24-channel system, ESPN is the most-watched station by far.

JetBlue was the first airline to offer live satellite television; when the airline started in 2000, all of its planes had small, seatback screens. In 2002, it acquired LiveTV, which installs seatback televisions and equips planes with satellite systems. Frontier purchased its systems from LiveTV, and since 2005, all its airplanes have been equipped with televisions. On Delta, Dish Network satellite television is available only on cross-country flights from Kennedy.

Airlines must negotiate the specific set of satellite TV channels they want to carry. Sometimes sporting events are not included in their channel range, so the airline can try to work out a special arrangement. Frontier has done this for several years to allow passengers to watch the Super Bowl.

''On that one day a year, we negotiate with DirecTV and LiveTV to basically replace a channel with the station broadcasting the Super Bowl,'' said Joe Hodas, a spokesman for Frontier, which has not made such an arrangement for the NCAA men's basketball tournament or the World Series.

JetBlue carries CBS, so sports fans can watch the NCAA tournament and the Super Bowl, among other events.

On international flights, there is only one international airline that uses live, satellite television - Qatar Airways. It has a live feed for EuroSports 2 in Europe, and in the Middle East passengers can watch EuroSport News.

However, many international and European airlines offer on-demand television, with a small number of selections of sports programs. This means that passengers can watch a half-hour, pre-recorded special on a sport but not the entire game. Those airlines include British Airways, BMI, Lufthansa, SAS, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways, China Airlines.

Brett Muney, manager of product development at JetBlue, said the best part of having televised sporting events available in-flight was the sense of competition that often emerges among passengers.

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