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In search of the smile-high club

Beating boredom at 30,000 feet is an airline's next big challenge, writes Liam Lacey. And they hope to deliver with 3-D movie characters dancing on table trays, an experience of flying in apparently transparent airplanes and a limitless stream of customized entertainment

Icelandair staff and actors sing to passengers as they star in Ahead of Time, an immersive theatre production on a flight from London to New York in September.

Shortly after takeoff from Heathrow Airport this past fall, a barefoot young woman sat in the empty Icelandair seat next to me, wearing a princess-waist dress with orange mandala swirls and a pendant on her forehead. She introduced herself to me as Cynthia, but said she was thinking of changing it to Celestia.

She and her boyfriend, Richie, had been trekking through Central Asia. In Afghanistan, someone had sold Richie a carved dove made out of hashish and they had smoked it. Now they were en route to New York where, regretfully, they would be too late for the Woodstock Festival. But first they had some theatre work to do.

In real life, Cynthia is Harriet Green, an actor who has played Anne Boleyn and the Virgin Mary on English television. Today, up here in the sky, she is about to act in an inflight play commissioned by Icelandair to help celebrate its 80th anniversary. For this gig, Ms. Green is working for London's Gideon Reeling theatre company, which specializes in bespoke theatre projects.

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As a passenger, my participation in this play is entirely voluntary: Those who want to hide under their headphones or a sleep mask are free to do so. Those of us who choose to play along wear a white plastic flower and find ourselves meeting a group of characters from across the decades. The play, entitled Ahead of Time, includes both professional actors and, in support roles, Icelandair cabin crew members, who prepared for the production by volunteering to attend theatre camp.

And what a production it is. Richie (real name: Adam Redmore) brings out his guitar and leads the passengers in a sing-a-long of the Beatles' Love Me Do. Valerie (Kathryn McGarr) posing as a power-flirt tour guide from the 1970s, keeps petting my arm and whispering secrets about the history of Icelandic air travel. Miss Lydia Bird Walton (actually Gideon Reeling's artistic director, Kate Hargreaves) is dressed in a tweedy skirt and bobby-pinned hair, and introduces herself as a Second World War transport plane pilot. She gives me a disapproving look when I can't remember, at one point in the proceedings, which branch of the service I am supposed to be in.

From one perspective, this interactive play in the clouds was a publicity stunt, part of a series of Icelandair promotional dinners, concerts and other on-ground live events to mark their 80th year. And whether it will be repeated any time soon is uncertain.

Yet it was devised as an experiment in response to a genuine issue on long-haul flights: boredom.

Before launching its anniversary event, Icelandair conducted a study of 9,000 American and European air passengers – and found that boredom was an extremely common complaint. Fully one-third of those passengers said they'd be more likely to choose an airline that offered free live entertainment.

And the Icelandic carrier is not the only airline experimenting with ways to keep passengers occupied while in transit. Since 2011, Dallas-based Southwest Air has offered a series of "pop-up concerts" on domestic flights, and recently signed an agreement with Warner Music Nashville to bring music on board as well.

At any given time, according to the aviation-data company FlightAware, there are close to 10,000 planes with more than a million passengers hovering over the planet. Keeping those people amused is not cheap. By 2020, say some experts, airlines are expected to more than double their spending on entertainment and "connectivity" – to about $9.3-billion.

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Early flights had short films, and sometimes live entertainers: a singer, or maybe an accordionist. In 1936, the year before it blew up in a fireball, the Hindenburg airship featured a pianist playing Schubert and Strauss, and Lady Suzanne Wilkins singing I'm in the Mood for Love.

Since then, the battle against tedium has pressed ever onward. The first feature-length inflight movie was shown in 1961 (the potboiler By Love Possessed with Lana Turner), made possible by a special sideways projector that could fit an entire film onto a single reel. The projector company's founder, David Flexer, told The New Yorker that the idea came "from my simply thinking one day, in flight, that air travel is both the most advanced form of transportation and the most boring."

In-seat audio and back-seat screens arrived in the late eighties, and video-on-demand by 1997.

Then came, albeit haltingly, the era of bring-your-own entertainment. The first WiFi on planes arrived back in 2004, and, after a bumpy decade or more, actually began working half-decently in the past couple of years. Pundits have declared that WiFi will soon mean the death knell for inflight TVs, which can cost $10,000 each, are heavy (adding to fuel costs) and quickly become outdated.

Certainly passengers love the WiFi option. According to Rupert Pearce, CEO of the European telecommunications satellite firm Inmarsat, "Surveys show people would rather have WiFi than eat … than arrive on time, or be put together with their bags at the end of a journey."

Most new inflight systems are Android-based, and can be adapted to include in-seat entertainment. But their availability reflects science-fiction writer William Gibson's notion that "the future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed." Real-time TV and radio, social media, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, and yes, phone services (already common in Europe and Latin America) are generally so far available only on top airlines and in the best classes. (On some airlines, you can even order a meal, drinks and duty-free goods from the screen in front of you rather than wait for a flight attendant to come around.)

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Ahead of Time took place over 11 hours and across three countries.

Meanwhile, new ways of delivering non-live entertainment are on the way. In an interview, Seattle-based consultant Rory Briski, who is currently writing a book on the future of inflight entertainment, outlined a few things we'll see in the next decade or so. Among them: flexible (even foldable) screens that will cover your window shade or even your tray table.

In fact, every part of the interior of an airplane could eventually be a screen: Imagine cameras, set around the outside of the plane, filming the world out there. Now project those same images into the cabin, and you'd have the impression of flying in a transparent glass tube. Or, if you prefer other environments, it could appear you were travelling through outer space.

And, says Briski, "Everyone is working on 3-D stereoscope projection in free air" – in other words, a world where three-dimensional images would appear in front of you, no screen needed. He invites you, for example, to imagine Star Wars' R2-D2 and Princess Leia standing on your tray table. That kind of technology could be especially good at keeping kids entertained – and it appears they need to be: A study commissioned last year by the Dubai-based airline Emirates found that children take an average of 49 minutes and 47 seconds on a flight to ask, "Are we there yet?"

He also sees a future of "gesture tracking" that would allow passengers to increase the volume on their headsets, or adjust their overhead light, with the wave of a hand. No more searching for buttons or getting caught up in wires – irritations that are their own version of boring. (Passengers may eventually even be able to use voice commands to control their surroundings, as they currently do with Amazon's Alexa and Google Home, if the industry can figure out a way to do it, says Briski, "without it being obnoxious to other passengers.")

Whatever the distraction provided, inflight entertainment is also about making people, in a broader sense, embrace the experience of flying. Passengers in economy (and to a certain extent, in better classes, too) are effectively held in a quasi-military, prison-like environment, supervised by uniformed strangers. Improving the inflight experience, as U.S. carrier JetBlue puts it, is one part of putting "the humanity back in air travel" – and giving individual airlines an edge on the competition.

That might mean inflight theatre on Icelandair. Or, on Norwegian Air, which is based in a country known for relative gender equality, adding a female-driven comedy network to its inflight offerings: PYPO (Put Your Pretty On), founded by Emmy-winning Veep writer Stephanie Laing.

Indeed, screen offerings, at least in the short term, remain the go-to form of sky-high distraction. On that front, some airlines aim for sheer breadth: Emirates offers 2,500 in-flight programs. Air Canada, with its 150 movies and 200 television shows, can't compete with that volume. Still, it's clearly doing something right: Last year, the airline won an award for the quality of its "video curation" from the inflight industry group APEX (the Airline Passenger Experience Association).

The airline's curation team consists of two of its own employees plus a four-person team from Spafax, a so-called content-service provider. Spafax, which also works with Emirates, British Airways, American Airlines and Virgin America, is one of a handful of such companies that broker deals between Hollywood studios, film distributors and airlines.

In an interview, Andrew Shibata, Air Canada's managing director of brand and Anton Vidgen, the company's creative director, said that it's nearly impossible to avoid offering bored flyers such Hollywood products as Wonder Woman and Baby Driver. But they aim to deliver Canadian content as well.

Along with offerings from the NFB and Air Canada's own annual EnRoute Short Film Festival, the airline adds an average of three new Canadian movies a month. A recent addition was Long Time Running, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier's documentary about Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip's cross-Canada good-bye tour. The airline also occasionally negotiates directly with filmmakers for bespoke fare, as it did in the case of a trilogy of documentaries commemorating Canada's Great War fliers, narrated by Dan Aykroyd and entitled A Nation Soars.

The video curators watch a lot of material, in more than 20 languages, in order to keep up with consumers' tastes at home and abroad. In the Pacific region, for example, being on trend can mean offering the latest Korean viral pop video. "Everything" says Shibata, "starts with customer data."

And, of course, romantic movies have their own special status in the air: Mush brain at high altitudes is a phenomenon that's been documented in a Virgin Airways survey and has even been the subject of a Fresh Air episode on American National Public Radio: People fall for the sappiest stuff when they're miles from home, lost in the clouds. "There's something that happens at 30,000 feet," says Shibata, "where people want to have a good cry."

Did I dab a tear from my eye when Cynthia, Richie, Valerie and the rest of the cast of the Icelandair flight waved and called my name as I deplaned? Maybe a small one (it might have been bigger, but airplanes, in my defence, are notoriously dehydrating). Participating in live theatre was challenging and fun.

Still, I knew by then that theatre in the sky has its limitations: The poor actors had to fight for attention with drink trolleys and washroom lineups. As for the audience, yes, you could fasten an eye shade over your head, but you were deprived of the time-honoured joy of leaving the theatre in a huff.

More than anything, though, sitting through a sky-high play reminded me that travel shouldn't be all about fighting boredom while getting where you're going. It's ultimately also about discovering people. Ahead of Time was fun (as is, speaking of ahead of time, the thought of one day flying in apparently transparent airplanes, and of 3-D movie characters dancing on our table trays while we gesture to summon a limitless stream of customized entertainment).

But it was also a reminder of what's too often missing in long-distance travel these days: the human touch, even if those humans are merely play-acting.

The writer travelled as a guest of Icelandair. It did not review or approve this article.

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