Snapshot: 1959 - Launch of live TV

1 Sep 2017 by Valerian Ho

These days the raft of in-flight entertainment (IFE) is vast. Simply touch your personal seat-back TV and you can select new blockbusters, entire seasons of your favourite TV show and music from Mozart to Justin Bieber.

But it’s not enough! Today’s consumers want to be connected in real time. Onboard wifi and live TV are currently two of the biggest game-changers in the IFE field, but the first attempt to stream live TV in the air actually came more than 50 years ago.

In 1959, US carrier Continental Airlines advertised its pioneering new live TV service on board its “Golden Jet”, the brand-new Boeing 707 that flew from Los Angeles to Chicago, Denver and Kansas City.

One single television set was installed in the first class Rendezvous Room, a lounge where passengers were invited to “sip champagne and watch TV”.

However, the service did not last long. After just one month of patchy reception, with programmes changing as the plane moved over different regions, the live TV service was withdrawn.

Boeing 707 Onboard Offerings (TV & Ticketing) circa June 1959: Credit - Boeing

The problem of live TV remained unsolved until 2000, when US low-cost carrier Jet Blue, in partnership with Live TV, became the first airline to successfully install 24 channels of live TV to every passenger seat.

In 2011, Gulf Air set another benchmark, claiming to be the first airline to offer “global” live television on board its new fleet of A330-200s to destinations in Europe, Asia and the US. Outfitted with Panasonic’s Global Communications Suite, the carrier offers access to channels such as BBC World News and IMG Media’s Barclays Premier League.

Meanwhile, also in 2011, Norwegian Air – another low-cost carrier – claimed the title of being the first European carrier to offer live-streamed TV, with access to Bloomberg Television and TV2 News for passengers using their own device.

In Asia, the number of carriers offering live TV is minimal: since last year ANA passengers have been able to watch CNN, Sport 24 and NHK on board the carrier’s B787-8, B787-9 and A320neo aircraft (though services are suspended over China), while Cathay Pacific also offers three channels on its new A350 in-flight entertainment system.

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