From theaters to 35,000 feet: How American Airlines chooses and loads inflight entertainment

Mar 20, 2021

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

March marks Women’s History Month.

To honor and celebrate the occasion, American Airlines is featuring 20 female-driven movies on its inflight entertainment portal, including hits such as “Hidden Figures” and “Mulan.”

With an ever-changing selection of movies and TV shows, who actually chooses what makes it onboard and how is the media loaded on the plane?

We turned to the powers that be to find out. TPG spoke with Jenna Dymond, Chandler Domijan and Sydney English, the trio that’s behind American’s inflight entertainment team (IFE) to learn more.

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

American receives a pre-screened assortment of movies

At home, choosing what movie or show to watch requires a few clicks on a remote, or perhaps even a string of voice commands. Within seconds, you’re streaming the latest flicks without leaving your couch.

But things are very different in the air. The AA IFE team is working with months-long lead times when selecting what movies to show fleet-wide.

American’s latest IFE software on the new Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Now, in mid-March, American is already previewing movie screeners for June. Inflight content gets updated on the first of each month, so the picks need to be made well in advance.

But, how is American’s mighty team of three supposed to screen every movie under the sun?

That’s where Spafax, an external content consultant, comes in. Spafax does a major pre-screen before submitting a selection of five to 15 new releases and documentaries from major studios for American’s consideration.

Then, it’s time to enter the “war room.”

Related: Here’s how airlines censor in-flight entertainment

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

Each month, American’s IFE team gathers for an hours-long meeting to review all of Spafax’s recommendations.

They’ll look at each pick’s description, cast and intensity, as well as any ratings that might already be circulating online. Since American can screen movies before they’re available via at-home streaming services, the team sometimes decides without any third-party ratings.

The team admitted that it has a pretty good understanding of what flyers enjoy. As for genres, comedies always perform well. So do new releases, since American can show a movie before it’s available on Amazon Prime or Hulu.

The team analyzes viewership trends for TV shows, especially those that are trending on major streaming platforms.

Sometimes, though, what’s popular right now may not be a hit in the air. In fact, the classics, like “Friends,” “Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family,” continue to land in the top five most-watched onboard shows.

And then there are times when movies flop in theatres yet become incredibly popular on the inflight entertainment, which is what happened to the movie “Cats.”

In Dymond’s perspective, “a flight is somebody’s opportunity to watch that movie that they were too embarrassed to see with friends in the theater. But now that they’re a captive audience in a metal tube, they take that as an opportunity to watch something that they wouldn’t have on the ground.”

Each month the team updates roughly 30% of the IFE content, representing over 200 hours of the total 675 hours of content on each jet.

Related: AA’s website now shows you if your flight will have seatback entertainment

From ‘war room’ to onboard server

Once the team makes its picks, it’s back to Spafax to get the content ready to load on planes.

That process starts with quality testing. After obtaining the raw files from the studios, Spafax encodes the movie and then uploads it to an array of seat-back monitors for quality control.

Every new file is tested to make sure there aren’t any glitches. Foreign language subtitles, poster files and other meta-data are also checked before creating a flash drive with the month’s new media.

Multiple flash drives are shipped to every American Airlines hub and major outstation. Over the course of the next ten to 15 days, airline mechanics install the new media on planes during overnight downtime.

Despite the two-week loading process, each plane’s entertainment software will only begin offering the new content on the first day of the month.

For planes equipped with wireless ViaSat entertainment systems, American can load the new movies wirelessly, eliminating this last step.

Just remember to bring your own entertainment device when flying with American. Most of the carrier’s domestic jets are no longer outfitted with seat-back screens. The carrier has largely moved to personal device streaming options.

Related: American Airlines adds free inflight Apple TV+ streaming

What’s next for American’s inflight entertainment

Selecting and loading IFE content for a fleet of over 800 planes is perhaps much more complex than it seems.

American’s team said it’s particularly proud of all the exclusive partnerships it’s launched in recent years, including expanded relationships with Calm, Austin City Limits and Apple. At this point, AA and Apple have teamed up to offer flyers inflight access to Apple Music, Apple TV+ and Apple Books.

Apple TV+ is now available across the AA fleet (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

In light of the pandemic, the carrier is working on future partnerships that represent mindfulness and wellbeing while onboard.

Another major initiative for the IFE team is a push for greater diversity and inclusion. The carrier is planning more themed channels to honor upcoming heritage months, like LGBT pride in June. Additionally, with the launch of new flights to Tel Aviv on the horizon, American is working on adding more Hebrew and Israeli-themed content to its IFE.

As for feedback, the IFE team said it’s always looking at comments and concerns posted across social media channels. They also read post-flight surveys regarding the entertainment system.

And don’t worry if you couldn’t find anything exciting to watch — this weeks-long process repeats itself every single month, so there’s always something new on the horizon.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.