The Role of Apps and Streaming Services in In-Flight Entertainment

Passengers are intimately familiar with both apps and streaming, which is likely why so many airlines are embracing both solutions for IFEC. Although you can still find some traditional television on domestic flights, it’s quickly becoming less frequently utilized in favor of on-demand streaming through seatbacks or proprietary airline apps.

Live TV on Airplanes?

Some airlines are offering live TV or at least on-demand TV services from providers like DIRECTV. United currently offers more than 100 channels and movies through DIRECTV for free for passengers in many of their Boeing 737 cabins. The only other airline that offers live TV in the traditional sense in Southwest Airlines.


The “Bring Your Own Device” model of in-flight entertainment is likely here to stay. The concept is straightforward – you watch the airline’s IFE on your own device. Nearly every airline now offers a curated collection of traditional TV shows, shows from premium streaming services and relatively new movies on their own platform.

The BYOD model functions as a convenient way to get passengers to install the app. They can watch the airline’s own content for free without having to pay for Wi-Fi, as long as they get the app and watch through the airline’s portal.

BYOD hasn’t destroyed the seatback screen. Many people still prefer the built-in screen for a variety of reasons. Some people don’t want to hold their phone or tablet the whole flight to binge watch TV or watch a film. Others just want to save the battery life of their device for when they need it to get out of the airport and on to their destination.

In-Flight Streaming Isn’t Just About Entertainment

Keeping flyers distracted and entertained is important, especially when flyers are dealing with delays or less-than-ideal traveling conditions. But airlines also need to monetize every aspect of air travel as much as possible, especially in the current aviation climate. Selling Wi-Fi is great but it’s generally a one-time source of revenue. Getting an app on a customer’s phone that can then be used to target them with free advertisements in the future has the potential to offer longer-term value.

What Are Some of the Major Airlines Showing?

American Airlines is currently partnering with Apple TV+ and Apple Music. Travelers without an Apple TV subscription can watch Apple Originals for free during their flight, but they do need an Apple Music account to enjoy the “free” music.

They’ve also curated a “Lifestyle channel” that includes video content developed by the popular language learning program Rosetta Stone as well as Skillshare video classes. The learning-oriented content offered on American flights sets them apart from other major airlines.

They’re also offering a host of free movies and TV in addition to Apple originals, including some from other premium content providers like HBO.

United Airlines has also embraced the BYOD model with flyers having the ability to stream DIRECTV or their curated collection of movies and TV through their own personal device. Their “United Private Screening” library is updated monthly but also contains a variety of premium streaming or cable TV content that’s generally only available through subscription models.

Delta may still be the leader in in-flight streaming thanks to their more than 1,000 hours of free movies, podcasts, music and television. They also offer a variety of both new and classic premium content from nearly every major paid channel, from Showtime and Starz to HBO and Hulu.

Delta also has a Spotify partnership that includes several popular playlists as well as many Spotify original podcasts. Most of this content is technically free already (at least the ad-supported versions) – but Delta doesn’t make you pay for Wi-Fi to listen to music and podcasts.

Although Delta hasn’t committed to free Wi-Fi yet, they have dipped their toe in the water with “Free Messaging” through a special Wi-Fi network passengers can connect to on their flight.

Southwest has adopted the more straightforward and literal free live TV by offering regular live TV channels on their flights. Most of the major news networks as well as some entertainment networks are available to watch for free without purchasing Wi-Fi access. Their on-demand movie library is less robust than many of their competitors, but it does include roughly a hundred movies from a diverse array of genres.

The Future of Apps and Streaming in the Sky

Smartphones aren’t going anywhere – but neither are seatback screens – at least not right away. There’s still a loyal contingent of flyers who don’t want to watch or listen to content on their device when there’s an app-free alternative right in front of them. However, airlines will continue to develop new ways to strongly encourage passengers to download their apps.

Offering discounts through app purchases will likely be one of the trends adopted by more and more airlines in the coming years. For example, United already offers discounted flights specifically for 18 to 22 year olds if they have a MileagePlus® account and book through the United app. The ability to target specific demographics who may turn into loyal customers and can be served regular app notification ads may be appealing to more airlines in the future.

Need the Best In-Flight Entertainment for Your Aircraft?

Rosen Aviation develops exceptional IFEC equipment for aircraft cabins of all types, from major carriers to charters and private aircraft. We’re constantly developing and innovating technologies that deliver vibrant IFEC and great traveler experiences.

You can learn more about our products and services by calling us at 888-668-4955.