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« De Young Museum Impressions | Main | "Being Julia" »

November 17, 2005

Stratospheric Videocams

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Besides cramped seating, the thing that annoys me most about long-distance flights is the one-size-fits-all movie/video presentations on screens mounted on section partitions and monitors attached high in the cabin.

It's bad enough on transcontinental flights, but overkill sets in when flying overseas. American Airlines would serve up a couple movies or more and fill the rest of the time with CBS features, recent sit-com episodes and even I Love Lucy reruns.

For you readers keeping track of my weirdness, here's more to add to your list of quirks: I prefer looking out the window to renting a headset -- or accepting a free headset -- to listen to the audio accompanying the unavoidable video. Nope, never spent a dime for that.

Fortunately, as politicians will say, Help Is On The Way. Actually help's already here provided you're on the right airline or airliner.

Help takes the form of small video screens mounted on the backs of seats. Instead of a single entertainment sequence, you can select what you view from a reasonable variety of offerings. On transatlantic flights, I prefer the maps showing the route and the position of the plane along with statistics such as altitude, airspeed, groundspeed, distance/time relative to origin and destination, and so forth. On a recent Polar flight from Copenhagen to Seattle I was able to track latitude, discovering that we peaked just shy of 78 degrees north.

Frontier Airlines had such screens on their Airbus A319s that I flew on from Seattle to Denver and return last year. American Airlines had them on their transatlantic Boeing 777s, but not the smaller, older 767s. SAS (Scandinavian) has them on their big Airbus A340s, but with an interesting twist.


Airbus A340 - 3.jpg
Airbus A340.

SAS's A340s have videocameras mounted so that you can select views of what's ahead and what's below the aircraft. This was fascinating, especially when the plane was taxiing and taking off and landing; you sort of get a pilot's view of things.

On my recent SAS flights I had my beloved window seating, so I didn't check the video views much while airborne. But if I were stuck in an inside seat, it would have made the trip much more enjoyable than otherwise.

But I did get one particularly fascinating view from the downward-pointing camera. We were somewhere around northern Alberta vectored towards Vancouver and far removed from well-traveled air lanes.

On a whim, I switched the seatback monitor to the down-pointed videocam. I saw a jet contrail dividing the image on the little screen, a wispy contrail. Gradually the contrail narrowed and became less wispy; we were gaining on whatever was below us. Then at the top of the screen appeared an airliner, a jet with two engines. It was hard to judge how far below us the other plane was flying, most likely 2,000 feet, perhaps 4,000. The airliner dropped down the screen and disappeared off the bottom a minute or two after it first appeared.

Besides the surprise, what struck me most about it was the tiny likelihood that we would encounter another plane heading precisely the same direction in such a remote location. The only other airliners flying non-stop from Europe to Seattle are four-engine 747s. Air Canada seems to have an afternoon 767 flight from London to Vancouver, but its path would likely be a ways to the east of where I saw the other aircraft. Interesting mystery.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at November 17, 2005




Comments

Just to weigh in with a comment or three...

1. Those foldy-downy TV monitors the airlines are using now are just too small for much of a movie experience. I remember seeing "Notting Hill" that way and not realizing the Julia Roberts character is pregnant at the end simply because the screen wasn't large enough to convey that detail. Also, I always seem to be seated so that the TV monitor I'm supposed to look at is the furthest one back. Yet the airlines typically charge $5.00 for this? On the other hand, even if you opt out of the movie, you're supposed to keep your window closed so the cabin is relatively dark for those passengers trying to watch it, and using the overhead lamp to read seems like poor form during that time.

2. I've taken several flights to Amsterdam in recent years, and Northwest/KLM uses that system of projected route maps showing where you are with the added information like air speed and outside temperature. The nifty thing is that the text alternates between English and Dutch.

3. I used to like window seats, too, but it's always a pain to get past the other passengers in the row if you need to get up. Also, I always seemed to get a seat near the wing with 50% or more of the view blocked, and often there would be cloud cover anyway (most of my European trips were in November), so it hardly seemed worth it. Mid-row seats are horrible, since the seats are narrow and cramped, and with people on either side of you, there's no room to move. These days, I always request an aisle seat. Easy up and out, arm room at least in one direction, and you can better access your briefcase under the seat in front of you.

Still, when conditions are right (like clear weather and an only half-filled airplane with lots of empty seats), a window seat can be nice, especially if you have the rest of the row to yourself. A year or so back, I saw what I assume was the contrail of a plane that had passed by earlier. It hadn't had time to disperse yet, and just hung in the sky like a gigantic arch. What was really striking was that since we were on a level with it, it was three-dimensional, not just a smear overhead on the overturned bowl of the sky as it would be seen from the ground. It looked like some impossibly vast construction that shouldn't be there.

--Dwight

Posted by: Dwight Decker on November 18, 2005 10:50 AM



GeoVision (which is what they call the program that shows you the airplane's location, route, altitude and so on) is the best thing to happen to in-flight entertainment since they started giving you a choice of movies. I am also fond of the audio track for listening to the pilot-air traffic control frequency; unfortunately, only United has this feature as far as I know.

What is really a step backward are those cheap-jack mini-headphones with "earbud" speakers some airlines are providing now. I can't get the damn things to stay fixed in my ears, but that's not the only drawback. With no cushioning around the speakers, the sound leaks out, and if someone sitting near you turns the volume high the sound can be really annoying and distracting.

I keep promising myself a pair of "noise cancelling" headphones, though it's hard to justify the expense for the two or three flights I take annually. And they actually only attenuate the low frequencies, so I've read. But if the airlines are going to insist on those dinky earbuds, the noise-cancelling cans may become virtually a necessity.

Posted by: Rick Darby on November 18, 2005 02:06 PM



Donald: "Besides the surprise, what struck me most about it was the tiny likelihood that we would encounter another plane heading precisely the same direction in such a remote location."

Aircraft flying on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight plan normally travel along "Victor Airways", which are functionally airborne highways. At high altitude, all aircraft are flying IFR. That's a pretty deserted "highway", but it's still not especially unusual to pass another aircraft enroute.

Dwight: "Also, I always seemed to get a seat near the wing...."

This was probably the seat assigner being nice. Over-wing seats are the least affected by turbulence, since the airplane rotates about its center of mass, which is near or over the wing.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 18, 2005 04:42 PM



GeoVision is my favourite too! Had to say that.

Also got to say, the selection of things for children to watch is often really poor. In a confined space it's in everyone's interests to keep the small people quiet, and they really should put a hundred episodes each of Spongebob and Charmed on there, if that's what it takes. I suggest at the very least one boy and one girl channel.

Posted by: Alice on November 20, 2005 12:35 PM



A few possibilities exist to explain your phantom plane. There are several charter airlines that fly from Western Canada to Europe (Zoom, among others) and Air Canada begrudgingly and expensively offers flights to various locations in Northern Canada (though with such a big plane that seems unlikely).

As for the service on Northwest/KLM, I must counter and say that this is the most horrible thing that has ever been introduced to air travel. Every two minutes you are reminded in a new language that you are going to be uncomfortably confined for another five hours, with an accompanying map showing just how far you still have to travel. It's like a digital 'are we there yet?' on eternal repeat. That said, the idea of a choosing outside cameras seems really really cool.

Desmond Bliek

Posted by: Desmond Bliek on November 20, 2005 01:02 PM



A few possibilities exist to explain your phantom plane. There are several charter airlines that fly from Western Canada to Europe (Zoom, among others) and Air Canada begrudgingly and expensively offers flights to various locations in Northern Canada (though with such a big plane that seems unlikely).

As for the service on Northwest/KLM, I must counter and say that this is the most horrible thing that has ever been introduced to air travel. Every two minutes you are reminded in a new language that you are going to be uncomfortably confined for another five hours, with an accompanying map showing just how far you still have to travel. It's like a digital 'are we there yet?' on eternal repeat. That said, the idea of a choosing outside cameras seems really really cool.

Desmond Bliek

Posted by: Desmond Bliek on November 20, 2005 01:02 PM



I had an experience a bit like yours several years ago. We were flying from St. Louis to Salt Lake City on a beautiful clear morning. On one side there was a plane flying parallel to ours about ten miles away. On the the other side was another ten miles away and a fourth ten miles beyond that. The best part was when a fifth plane on an antiparallel route passed through the formation between our plane and the one next to it. It was all quite enthralling. Random coincidence was not a likely cause of the formation.

Posted by: John Mansfield on November 22, 2005 04:04 PM






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