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An illustrated guide to inflight entertainment by decade

By United
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The act of flying can be exciting all on its own; in fact, when airline travel took off in the 1950s, the flight itself was usually the main form of entertainment. Over time, the amenities have evolved to make it even better. See how the ways in which we entertain ourselves onboard have changed in this illustrated series.


With seats on a domestic flight costing an average of 40% more than tickets today, scoring a ride was a coup in itself. Personal devices were a thing of the future, so passengers conversed with their seatmates more often (something made easier with the 1952 introduction of the first commercial jet, which was significantly quieter than its piston-powered predecessor), and were provided with postcards featuring handsome photos of the aircraft or the meal they would be served onboard. Passengers often mailed the postcards when landing at their destination, the humblebrag of its time.


Air travel during this period had a certain glamour—the flight attendants clad in Pucci, Pierre Cardin, or Balenciaga, the stocked bars and leisure rooms, the caviar (yes, certain flights served caviar), not to mention the complimentary slippers and toothpaste. Many passengers likely weren’t lacking for stimulation; a cigarette (a 1964 poll recorded almost half of Americans as smokers), a martini, and a crossword were chosen companions for many jetsetters of this era.


The 70s saw a democratization in air travel: the number of planes and operators increased, prices began to decline, and the Airline Deregulation Act was passed in 1978. With increased passenger demand came a more streamlined flight experience. Tech also became more ubiquitous in-flight: movie screenings became commonplace, as did newly introduced portable calculators, popular for the rising wave of business travelers. 


The first Walkman was released at the tail end of the Me Decade, in 1979. It was revolutionary, and, by the mid-80s, ubiquitous, kicking off an innovation cycle for personal devices that extended to video players (which took a while to catch on) and handheld gaming devices (which were an immediate hit). The introduction of these personal devices marked a significant change in the way we fly.


Welcome to the world, laptop. The 90s was the first decade where clunky computers started popping up on tray tables. The portable video game peaked, as did the prevalence of children on flights, so they offered children and adults alike entertainment—as long as the AA batteries lasted. Towards the end of the decade, seat-back screens started appearing more often, introducing the earliest dual-screen entertainment experience.


In a sense our in-flight entertainment options have always been limited, and have lacked personalization. With the rise of mobile devices, our options are as diverse as our imagination. United’s personal device entertainment* service allows you to watch your favorite movies and TV in flight, right on your own device.


Prepare for endless onboard entertainment—with United’s personal device entertainment* you can stream hundreds of free movies and TV shows to your personal device during your flight. Just download the United app, charge your laptop, tablet, or phone, and remember to bring headphones.

This article was produced on behalf of United Airlines by the Quartz marketing team and not by the Quartz editorial staff.

*Available on select flights.

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