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Making time fly in flight
By Chris McGinnis

(CNN) -- Now that Americans can fly across the country for about $200 round trip, record numbers of travelers are sitting back, trying to relax and enjoy those four- or five-hour flights.

But the degree to which you may enjoy your next transcontinental flight can vary greatly, depending on the airline, age of the aircraft and which onboard entertainment system is installed.

Here's a rundown of what you can expect onboard your next flight:

Portable entertainment device

Now that Alaska Airlines is making transcontinental runs across the United States, it is offering a new in-flight entertainment option called a digEplayer. It's a battery-operated portable entertainment unit with a big hard drive and a 7-inch screen, made by APS Inc. of Tacoma, Washington. Each player is loaded with 30 full-length movies, hours of music, cartoons, sitcoms and destination information.

To get a digEplayer, you can pick one up at the gate. But since they sell out frequently, you may want to reserve it online before your flight. Alaska Airlines offers the player free for first-class passengers. For coach-class passengers, the fee is $10.

Hawaiian Airlines also is offering the digEplayer on flights between Hawaii and the mainland.

Live satellite TV

Low-fare carriers Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Song offer the new standard for in-flight entertainment: live satellite TV. With each seat outfitted with a video screen, passengers can choose from multiple channels for TV, news, first-run, pay-per-view movies, music and games.

Anyone who's enjoyed this luxury on a flight is immediately hooked. JetBlue and Song offer satellite TV on all aircraft. Frontier has satellite TV on 30 out of 40 of its aircraft.

Live radio

Coming this summer, AirTran Airways will offer live XM Satellite Radio. Each seat will have a dial, allowing passengers access to 100 channels of live, digital quality XM Radio, with a lineup of live news, sports, weather, talk and music programming.

The service will be free. AirTran begins installations in August, and JetBlue has announced that the service will be available on its new 50- to 100-seat Embraer regional jets, coming online in 2005. Independence Air, set to launch hundreds of flights from Washington Dulles International Airport this year, said it also will offer XM Radio on its new Airbus fleet.

Upgrades for overseas flights

With most major airlines cutting costs on all fronts, don't expect big improvements in entertainment on domestic flights any time soon. For now, you'll have to live with whatever movie or TV rerun the airline can afford for its aging tape-based system.

(I checked the movie lineups for May on several carriers, and the most frequently run flick is "Welcome to Mooseport," a movie that bombed when it was released in February. On a brighter note, many also are running "Big Fish," which was quite popular.)

Rob Brookler, a spokesman for the World Airline Entertainment Association, said most U.S. carriers are focusing on improvements in business and first-class entertainment on overseas flights.

"Video on demand, where you can choose from a variety of movies from your seat, and stop and start them as you please, is the new standard for business class," Brookler said.

High-speed Internet access

Brookler said the next wave in in-flight entertainment will be the installation of high-speed Internet onboard aircraft. "Eventually, airlines will be able to stream audio and video content via the Internet to seatbacks as well as providing the one thing that people ask for most: access to e-mail," he added.

Starting this summer, Lufthansa will offer high-speed Internet access onboard using a system called Connexion by Boeing. Passengers will be able to log on for $30 per long-haul flight or opt for the metered price of $10 for the first 30 minutes, then 25 cents per minute afterward.

Unfortunately for Americans, no U.S. carriers offer the service, which can cost up to $1 million per aircraft. However, in addition to Lufthansa, Connexion by Boeing has definitive service agreements with Scandinavian Airlines Systems, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways for installation. Singapore and China airlines also have announced their intention to install the Connexion service on their long-haul aircraft.

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