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Think about your last long flight. How did you pass the time?

Did you watch an in-flight movie, listen to the airline’s audio programs or tune into the seat-back television? Or did you bring along your own entertainment via your laptop, tablet or smart phone? Maybe you watched a movie, logged on to in-flight wi-fi and cleaned up your email box, checked in on Facebook or updated your blog. Did you finish up that novel on your Kindle or Nook?

As portable devices become more commonplace, it seems more frequent travellers are choosing to BYOE (bring your own entertainment). And why not? What you see and hear and interact with on your tablet or laptop is of much higher quality than the grainy, clunky systems found on most airline seatbacks (or worse, ceilings). The music from your iPhone or iPod combined with a noise-cancelling headset beats the airline audio played through cheap earphones purchased onboard. And as far as I know, no airline has installed Angry Birds as an onboard gaming option yet.

For many airlines, onboard in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems can be expensive to buy, install and maintain. They’re also heavy, which means paying more for jet fuel to carry the extra weight.

So could the increased use of portable devices mean the end of traditional in-flight entertainment? Maybe.

In the last few months, several airlines have switched their focus to support the trend in personalized entertainment.

American Airlines is testing a new video streaming product from Gogo, an in-flight internet provider, that allows passengers on US flights to rent movies or TV shows onboard and watch them on their own wi-fi enabled laptops or tablets. The carrier will soon start passing out wi-fi enabled Samsung Galaxy tablets to first and business class passengers to watch the same programming if they did not bring their own viewing device.

Australia’s low-fare carrier Jetstar Airways plans to offer more than 2,000 Apple iPads (pre-loaded with content) for rent to passengers on domestic and international flights later this year. 

Since May, British Airways has experimented with offering iPads with pre-loaded content to first and business class passengers on its Boeing 777 aircraft, while they are awaiting installation of a newer built-in system. According to Business Traveller, the iPads are locked down versions, meaning passengers can’t alter software, add or remove content. 

Alaska Airlines pioneered the idea of portable IFE in 2003, when it began handing out “DigEplayers” stocked with movies, TV shows and games to passengers on long-haul flights. Earlier this year, the carrier rolled out a newer, wi-fi enabled DigEplayer that is lighter, brighter and holds more content.

For an airline with limited funds, distributing handheld tablets can cost significantly less than installing a built-in system, and it provides a high quality product with which customers are familiar.

On a recent five-hour flight across the US, I watched a movie I’d downloaded to my MacBook. When that was over, I connected to the onboard wi-fi for a couple hours of emailing, tweeting and blogging. Luckily, I flew Virgin America, which had the prescience in 2008 to install a power outlet at every seat on every plane — important in the age of BYO entertainment since watching movies and surfing the net drains the battery on portable devices very quickly. So for me, I’d appreciate a plug in every seat and I’ll take care of entertaining myself. What about you?

Do you bring your own entertainment on long flights? Should airlines be responsible for providing our in-flight entertainment? Is your laptop, smart phone or tablet is a suitable replacement to full-fledged IFE systems? Please leave your comments on our Facebook page.

 Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel 

 

 

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