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."
Delta will test the taste boundary in May, when flights of more than four hours will see a dedicated HBO channel. Delta will give HBO to first and business class free, and charge economy customers $5 for movies and $2 for serial programming as profane as "The Sopranos," "Deadwood" and "Da Ali G Show."
United is adding a wider variety of TV, as well, for the overhead screen TV programs used on flights too short for a full movie. Customers wanted full episodes of shows such as "The Office" or "Heroes" or "CSI," instead of 10-minute clips, Kovick said.
Southwest isn't onboard
Denver's other ambitious airline, Southwest, will not join the entertainment race anytime soon. The no-frills competitor to United and Frontier has a uniform fleet of smaller 737 jets, and will leave video choices up to the increasing number of passengers who bring aboard their own iPods, computers and DVD players.
"You have to justify these things," said spokeswoman Beth Harbin. "They add weight, maintenance. By the time you get it installed, it's often outdated. Remember, we did have swipe phones," and those were supplanted by cellphones before people learned how to use them.
Southwest's short-haul strategy averages 46-minute flights, and while longer routes are growing, most passengers won't settle in for TV or movie programming on their brief trips, Harbin said.
Southwest's concession to the demand was a promotional discount with Movielink, offering passengers cheaper access to the download service if they wanted to buy movies for their own computers.
The airlines, meanwhile, are still learning how much loyalty the entertainment choices buy. In surveys, families say they would fly Frontier for the TVs even if another airline was cheaper, but reservation systems record that the real choices are still based on price and dates, said spokesman Joe Hodas.
Other survey questions back Frontier's strategy, however. The company does an "attitude" questionnaire every August.
"We get credit for sponsoring the Broncos, which we don't actually do," Hodas said. "We do sponsor the Nuggets and Avalanche, and people give other airlines credit for that. But when they're asked, which airline in Denver has live TV, we score very high on that."
Staff writer Michael Booth can be reached at 303-954-1686 or .
Movies with fright in flight are likely to get grounded
Airline representatives say they put a lot of thought into what movies you can see on their flights, and they have recently loosened their sensibility standards a bit. You are now more likely to see an intelligent, well-written quirk like "Stranger Than Fiction" or unedited versions of profane movies like "The Departed."
Airlines also used to shy away from any films showing air disasters of any kind, but those blanket restrictions, too, are softening. Many winter
fliers saw "The Guardian" and its harrowing depictions of a helicopter crash, sinking boats and doomed air rescues.
"We do want to choose what our passengers want," said Frontier's Joe Hodas.
Still, there are a few movies you aren't likely to see soon on your local jumbo jet:
"Cast Away": Easily the most terrifying portrayal of a jet crashing into the Pacific. Yes, Tom Hanks survived, but the manner of his ditching had fliers rethinking trips to Hawaii, Asia or Australia for years.
"United 93": Yes, the airlines have shown such mindless, entertaining hijacking fare as "Air Force One." But a thoughtful, depressing and meticulous film about the Sept. 11 hijackings is still too raw to make the playlist.
"Flightplan": A taut thriller involving a flight attendant and an air marshal diabolically plotting against a bereaved mother starts with a few strikes against it. The clincher is the final scene, let's just say the airplane in question won't be able to complete its connecting flight.
"Snakes on a Plane": Unless they want passengers to give up use of the floor, the overhead bins, under-seat storage, the bathrooms and all personal belongings containing pockets.
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