They've raced to see who can get you from here to O'Hare on the cheapest fare.
They've fought bitterly over who can get you to LaGuardia on time.
Now the airlines are squaring off over who can get you a full episode of "The Office" in flight. Which will be the first to put an iPod dock on your arm rest. And who's got the guts to show the freshly minted Oscar winner "The Departed" unedited, in all its profane, splatter- shot glory.
Frontier, United, Delta, JetBlue and other U.S. airlines serving Denver International Airport are finally branching out beyond the standard in-flight fare of lame romantic comedies on grainy videotape, or the Boston Pops on the radio headset. Pushed by improving technology and the constant drive for a marketing edge over lower-cost rivals, the airlines are adding dozens of TV channels, risqué movie choices and innovative satellite music genres.
The passenger's flying choice "ultimately comes down to price and schedule," acknowledged United spokesman Jeff Kovick. "But all things being equal, the in-flight experience is a big part of the overall travel experience. At the end of the day, it's still a flight, and people want to use entertainment to make it go as quickly as possible."
Since September, United has loosened its restrictions on what types of movies can be shown on jets equipped with overhead screens, which all passengers can see. When the airline played "Little Miss Sunshine" in the fall, an R movie with some ear-curling rants by Alan Arkin, "We got a tremendous amount of positive feedback," Kovick said.
"We've found out that what customers want to see is not just the blockbusters but also good films they haven't had a chance to see yet," he said. "We're not afraid to look at some movies that our competitors wouldn't."
In coming weeks, Kovick said, "rather than only put 'Dreamgirls' on, we'll also put on 'Stranger Than Fiction.' It's another really good movie that most of our customers haven't seen."
United's headsets for video or audio programming are free. In addition to movies on flights of three hours or longer, United offers XM Satellite audio programming, from nine channels on a 737 to 19 channels on a 777.
iPod docks also are coming to United in "the near future," Kovick said, for first and business class on international flights. The docks will charge an iPod but also synchronize with the first-class screens, meaning passengers with a video iPod could project any TV or movies they brought along onto the larger screen at their seat.
Frontier moved ahead of many of its Denver competitors about 18 months ago, when it traded its Boeing aircraft for Airbus planes that had seat-back TVs and more sophisticated wiring. For $5, Frontier offers 24 channels of TV from DirecTV. For $8, passengers can choose among three more movie channels, including a dedicated Disney channel and some with more challenging fare, including "Déjà Vu," "Stranger Than Fiction" and "Bandidas."
For many passengers, the amenity creates exactly the reaction an airline is hoping for: Not a life-changing experience that would make someone swear off a competitor no matter the cost, but a creature comfort that clings to a brand name like cotton candy.
"We love it," said P.J. Schappert of Dallas, on her way home from visiting her son in Breckenridge. "We wish it was free and not $5, but it makes the flight go extremely fast."
Standing behind Schappert in the Frontier queue at DIA were daughters Rachel, 11, and Amy, 10, both dedicated channel-surfers on Frontier flights.
"You can give them Nickelodeon, and not have to bug them to not touch each other the whole flight," Schappert said.
She's also a flight attendant for Delta, now offering 24 TV channels for free, and she said given how much it occupies the passengers, "All the flight attendants love it too."
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.
It's all part of a major shift in how airlines think about the $1.75 billion-a-year industry for in-flight entertainment.
Airports are lining up to climb aboard regional service carried on new 74-seat turboprops.
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