In-flight movies: What the airlines aren't letting you see

The movies you watch when you're flying high in the skies can be a far cry than those you see on the ground, writes Michael Gebicki.

Fly aboard a Middle Eastern carrier and chances are you won't see the sausage scene in the Nicole Kidman-Will Ferrell movie Bewitched, while Air India blurs spicy romantic scenes, even in a lightweight rom-com. Words such as "bomb" and "terror" are likely to get bleeped from an in-flight movie, but curiously, so might the word "God" if you fly domestic in the United States. The editing of films that airlines show is in the hands of in-flight entertainment content providers, which act as middlemen between the studios and airlines. They provide the airline with a menu of current movies, take care of editing, translating, subtitling and dubbing to an airline's specific requirements and licence the film for a fixed fee, or sometimes on a pay-for-use basis. 

Airlines love in-flight entertainment systems because they keep passengers quiet and occupied. They are also acutely sensitive to the tolerances of their audience, with good reason. In 2013, a United Airlines flight made an unscheduled landing at Chicago, well short of its Baltimore destination, when two parents became disruptive when the thriller Alex Cross showed on the drop-down screens, complaining they could not shield their young children from its adult scenes. 

When it comes to the editing of in-flight movies, the rule that content providers  apply is "when in doubt, leave it out". As a crude generalisation, neither nudity nor profanities are likely to offend a European audience, but extreme violence might. With Asian fliers, it might be the other way round. Nudity and any reference to pork and images of pigs are likely to end up on the cutting-room floor before they screen on a Middle Eastern airline. 

Editing for an airline that caters to a mix of Asian, Middle Eastern and European travellers becomes a tricky proposition in the case of a film such as The Wolf of Wall Street, which uses the F-bomb 546 times, features 73 other profanities, offensive religious profanity and 24 scenes of a sexually explicit or graphic nature. Self-interest dictates that any scene showing aircraft or logos of a competitor airline are out, and air disaster films are definitely a no-show.


Four Traveller writers offer their take on the pros and cons of watching movies in the skies.


Best in-flight movie experience Any time you get to catch up on a film that you missed in the cinema. 

Worst in-flight movie experience Apart from the hell of a non-functioning entertainment system (particularly brutal on the long Dallas to Sydney flight), I was once seated next to a five year old who was very keen to watch my movie with me. He was particularly interested in the sex scenes. 

Best airline for movies Emirates' ICE system has more choice than any other; you could spend a short flight just browsing the listings. 


Best in-flight movie experience Watching Tracks (2013), the Australian drama about Robyn Davidson's solo trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean by camel, while flying home from South America on LAN Airlines. Homesickness be gone. 


Worst in-flight movie experience Sitting next to someone watching (and laughing at) the same movie as I am, but they are ten seconds ahead. 

Best airline for movies Singapore Airlines next generation KrisWorld, based on a Panasonic Avionics hardware platform. I like the large choice of on demand movies (more than 80), and inclusion of good regional offerings.


Best in-flight movie experience The 1982 bio-epic Gandhi, which I hadn't seen since its cinema release. I found myself utterly absorbed again and, at over three hours long, it certainly passed the time.

Worst in-flight movie experience A 1960s Chinese propaganda flick about a heroic factory worker, played on a shared cabin screen – especially as I could barely make out the English subtitles from 10 rows back.

Best airline for movies Emirates Airline's ICE in-flight entertainment system is outstanding, with on-demand games, music and television shows and around 190 movies, including quite a few new releases.


Best in-flight movie experience Himalaya, cult classic about love and inter-generational rivalry among yak herders in a remote part of the Himalayas. Seen on Nepal Airlines.

Worst in-flight movie experience Sitting next to a passenger who was watching The Hangover and convulsing with laughter so much my seat was shaking.

Best airline for movies Singapore Airlines. Great choice, decent-sized screens and headphones that work every time.