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In the much-loved comedy The Castle (1997), Tracy (Sophie Lee) and Con (Eric Bana) return from their honeymoon in Thailand, talking excitedly of the highlights. But Tracy's brother, Dale (Stephen Curry), only wants to know one thing: what movies were shown on the plane?

He's not the only one. It might not be as crucial as finding a good hotel or the best coffee shop but no matter how many fat novels or sleeping tablets you take, sometimes it requires a good movie to heighten the flight experience.

As with airline food and service, however, frequent travellers sometimes have horror stories about airline movies. Perhaps the sound quality is poor (a frequent complaint) or the movie selection is dubious.

Even when United Airlines prefaced each movie with a televised assessment from the critics Ebert and Roeper (and to the airline's credit, not all of their critiques were rosy) they couldn't assume that passengers would enjoy The Da Vinci Code.

MSNBC travel columnist and former flight attendant James Wysong tells a story of a flight attendant who announced: "Today we have a movie that will surely put you to sleep." Unfortunately the screenwriter was on board and the attendant was fired after the writer complained.

Of course, this is less of a concern now that most leading airlines have upgraded to multi-channel video systems for their long-haul flights. The iQ inflight entertainment system being fitted on all new Qantas aircraft includes up to 100 movies and more than 500 television programs. Even on its older aircraft, you're unlikely to get bored, with a choice of 25 movies.

As with every other aspect of the movie business, there are even awards for in-flight entertainment: the Avion Awards, presented since 1989.

Qantas won the overall award every year from 2002 to 2006, except 2004, when United won.

For the past two years, the top award has been won by Emirates, whose in-canin entertainment system has 600 channels, including 50 movies (ranging from Happy-Go-Lucky to Transporter 3), so the passengers' only concern is whether the flight will last long enough.

The Avions are awarded by the World Airline Entertainment Association, which keeps abreast of the latest technology and advances.

If airlines could afford to update their systems (and for now, many of them can't), they would have no excuse for poor sound quality.

Nonetheless, even the antiquated VHS tapes are a distinct improvement on the first in-flight movie screening in 1925, when Imperial Airlines projected The Lost World on a 30-minute flight. (As talking pictures would not arrive for another year, presumably no one complained about the sound quality.)

It was not until 1961 that TWA became the first airline to show films on regularly scheduled flights, projected from 16mm film. (For trivia buffs, the film was By Love Possessed, starring Lana Turner.)

It was a clunky business, improved somewhat after 1971, when newly invented 8mm film cassettes allowed flight attendants to change movies mid-flight. Twenty years later, the newly launched Virgin Atlantic was the first airline to have seat-back video screens (previously a first-class luxury) in all classes.

With its usual mischief, the first movie Virgin showed on these videos was Airplane! (aka Flying High), the 1980 comedy in which crew and passengers are poisoned by in-flight meals, narrowly avoiding a crash.

Oh, the hilarity. "I think a good rule of thumb for in-flight entertainment would be to avoid movies in which passengers die in a mass-transportation disaster," writes Wysong. This didn't stop airlines screening Titanic or Air Force One (though nobody has been dumb enough to show United 93).

In-flight movies are usually screened two months after their US release, just before their home-video release (though Australian movies on Qantas flights are shown closer to the release date).

Most airlines focus on blockbusters and comedies. "Light entertainment with broad appeal is very much the aim for main-screen [movies]," says Qantas inflight entertainment executive producer Michael Freedman.

"On personal screens we aim to include these movies within a broader mix of action and drama as well as special interest and arthouse films. Our primary focus is selecting movies which appeal to our business-purpose flyers but [we hope] that there is something for everyone, including children, within the mix."

The iQ system was unveiled with Qantas's much-publicised new A380 aircraft last year. "There is no set pattern to IFE [in-flight entertainment] technology upgrades," Freedman says.

"The complexity of IFE systems and the regulatory requirements mean that technology moves more slowly than home entertainment systems."

Serious film buffs are still unlikely to use in-flight systems to keep au fait with the latest movies. Not only will they miss the big-screen experience but they might not see the whole version.

Remember the scene in Rain Man when Dustin Hoffman reels off air-crash statistics, making the famous point that "Qantas never crashed"? That was trimmed by most airlines, with one obvious exception.

Most airlines also ruthlessly censor films (on the main screen, if not the personal systems) to make them family-friendly. Bad language is replaced by quaint expressions. Even a character flipping the bird is often pixellated.

In the current economic climate, not all airlines are expanding their movie service. In November, US Airways stopped showing movies on US domestic flights, hoping to save $US10 million ($16 million) a year.

"We simply can't afford to do it any more," says Travis Christ, its vice president for sales and marketing. Video systems weigh 227 kilograms and increase fuel use.

Also, customers often refuse to pay $5 for headsets, as required on most internal flights in the US. (Attendants on these flights seem to have given up pleading with passengers to stop using their own headsets.)

This might not be a problem for a short flight but for the six-hour Los Angeles-New York route, you might want to bring a good book.

It is not unlikely that other airlines will follow the US Airways' lead but only on short-haul flights. On longer flights, the mantra seems to be "upgrade, upgrade, upgrade".

As picture quality improves and the selection expands, frequent travellers might never again need to go to the movies.

Are you a fan of in-flight entertainment? What do you do to pass the time on long-haul flights? Share in the comments below.

Written by Mark Juddery. First appeared on

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