The Most Popular Movies and TV Shows In the Air

Inflight Entertainment, United

I don’t remember this being a thing in the past, but airlines now seem to be releasing details on the most-watched entertainment options onboard from the previous year. Initially I was going to compare between airlines, but then I realized that was silly. After all, the airlines offer different movies/TV shows, so you can’t really compare. Instead, I’m just going to focus in on one airline.

United rolled out its list of most watched movies and TV shows as viewed on its international widebody aircraft last week. That means this doesn’t include streaming, and it doesn’t include those looping movies on the LiveTV systems. I’m sure including those would have altered the results. After all, people probably behave much differently on short flights than they do on the long flights that dominate the widebody schedule. So, to review:

Let’s start with movies. As those who read my trip reports know, I tend to look for the most awful comedies around. (Proof: I once watched two Zach Galifianakis movies on one flight, and one wasn’t The Hangover.) I want something mindless and not overly emotional, because the last thing anyone needs locked in a metal tube for hours on end is a flood of emotions. If you’ve ever made the mistake of watching Marley and Me on an airplane as I once did, then you know what I mean. Bad comedies not only seem better on an airplane, but they also tend to be in the 90-minute range, so they’re easy to squeeze into shorter flights or allow for more movies to be seen on longer ones. Apparently not many others share my preference.

Here are the top ten most-watched movies on United from 2018.

  1. “Black Panther”
  2. “12 Strong”
  3. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”
  4. “American Made”
  5. “The Greatest Showman”
  6. “Coco”
  7. “Murder on the Orient Express”
  8. “Downsizing”
  9. “Darkest Hour”
  10. “Book Club”

On that list, only Jumanji is the kind of movie I would gravitate toward (and I did on my flight home from Honolulu in June). Though even Jumanji wouldn’t be considered a bad comedy. So what did people lean toward?

For the same reason I like unemotional escapist comedies, a lot more people apparently prefer escapist action/adventure/war. That’s really not a surprise, and I doubt anyone is shocked to see Black Panther up top. A Tom Cruise-led American Made also fits the bill. But possibly the best example of this is 12 Strong.

If you don’t even know what 12 Strong is, you probably aren’t alone. It was released in the usually dead month of January and opened in second place to a $15 million box office take, but then it tanked quickly. It only made $45 million for its entire run in the domestic market. So how was it the second-most-watched movie on all of United’s widebody fleet? Well, it’s an action/war movie set in Afghanistan and it’s about horse soldiers. Animals + war? Sounds like a winner for an airplane.

After that, we get into kid land. I have no doubt that The Greatest Showman and Coco were driven by parents trying to keep their kids occupied.

A whodunit like Murder on the Orient Express is a good distraction as is a historical drama like Darkest Hour which also had strong Oscar buzz that probably pushed people to watch it since they wouldn’t have bothered on the ground. Book Club undoubtedly appealed to a certain demographic (older women). Then there’s Downsizing. I can’t explain that. It wasn’t funny and it was just generally awful. But hey, Matt Damon….

So what’s the takeaway? People do like mindless movies, but they seem to like more action/adventure than they do comedy, at least on United. Throw in some kid movies and you have a recipe for success.

The same, however, can’t be said on the TV side of things. Here’s United’s top ten most-watched TV shows.

  1. “Friends”
  2. “The Big Bang Theory”
  3. “Silicon Valley”
  4. “Game of Thrones”
  5. “How I Met Your Mother”
  6. “Big Little Lies”
  7. “Veep”
  8. “A.P. Bio”
  9. “Sex and the City”
  10. “30 Rock”

After all these years, Friends is still number one. Fellow comedies How I Met Your Mother, Sex and the City, and 30 Rock have also been off the air for ages. So why are people watching them?

I think it’s the nature of TV. Airlines rarely have complete libraries of TV shows available, and few want to dive into some in-depth serial halfway through when they don’t know what’s going on. Comedies that people know and love are both mindless and familiar. They are easy to watch and they help pass the time. Friends is the king of that, but still, it’s pretty remarkable to see its staying power.

Even beyond that, you see very few shows in the top ten that require any kind of back story. Anyone can watch an episode of The Big Bang Theory or A.P. Bio (how was that in the top ten?) and not need to know anything about the show to be able to watch it.

I do find it interesting, however, that the other four shows were all HBO shows, and those do require more knowledge of the story. I asked United if these were promoted in a different way, and I was told that HBO has its own channel in the entertainment system, so that could get people to gravitate toward it. I can imagine all those people who don’t subscribe to HBO would be interested in watching a couple of episodes from buzzy shows to see if they’re worthwhile.

So, the recipe for success seems to be more comedies on TV and more action/adventure on the big screen.

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24 comments on “The Most Popular Movies and TV Shows In the Air

  1. Interesting data to digest. On an October flight to ICN what I discovered is that after nearly 10 months of flying I had already watched everything that interested me in the Delta library and I was suddenly on a 14 hour flight picking over scraps. I care less about what the films are and more about when they are going to turn them all over to new selections.

    Totally agree with you on the emotional movies though. Was flying home on a redeye after a long work trip and decided to watch “A Dogs Purpose.” Cannot lie, I was tearing up, but I blame the dry conditions on the airplane…

    1. That is where I am at with American. And I have trips to Europe from DFW coming up, so that is going to be a very iPad heavy trip.

  2. I like it when there are some more smaller scale movies – such as Death of Stalin which I watched on Air Canada, or WestJet had a few of the “The Trip” movies (with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon). As one of 7 people that doesn’t have netflix, these would have been the types of movies I would have rented.

    Not shocked by anything on the list!

  3. I could pass on all of them, even on a long flight. I rather watch films such as… Spy, Ghostbusters, Oceans 8, The Spy Who Dumped Me, Good Fellas or fittingly that great aviation classic Airplane! Even Blazing Saddles & Young Frankenstein I could watch while in flight. As for TV, give me Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

    1. +1 for Airplane! I literally watched Snakes on a Plane . . . .on a plane. . . .the irony is just too rich to say no to. Also Die Hard 2 is the greatest airport action movie of all time. Just saying.

      1. Another film I would suggest, The Cell with Jennifer Lopez & Vince Vaughn. The story line is so engrossing that 2-hours will fly by real quick. A personal favorite of mine, see it if you haven’t done so.

  4. Won’t you be my neighbor is a joyful tearjerker as well. It got me all sentimental and teary eyed on my last Delta flight!

  5. Hah. I watched Downsized on a plane. It was, indeed, kinda crap, but it appealed to me because trailers suggested it was quirky and I like Matt Damon. It was the kind of film I wouldn’t have the patience to give a shot on the ground, but could see through to the end on a plane because I literally have no where else to be. Same experience with Ready Player One.

    On long hauls, I love checking out international films I’d have a harder time catching at home. Not high brow either, just run of the mill comedies that give me a better sense of the pop culture of a place.

    Best movie I’ve seen on a plane recently is Game Night. Comedy, not crappy, and with a ~90 min runtime you can catch it even on shorter flights.

    1. I too watched both of those on United flights this year. I wanted to like Downsizing, but was left disappointed. Game Night, on the other hand, was very entertaining and the perfect kind of film for watching on a plane.

      I’d be curious to see the difference in this list if the BOD viewings on domestic flights were included. I bet the list might skew a little more towards what you expected Cranky.

  6. I prefer mindless comedies as well. Last time I was on a long enough flight for a movie it was “Blockers” and “Pitch Perfect 3”. I remember one fight, I was able to binge watch an entire season of “Portlandia”. That was awesome.

  7. Greatest movie to watch on a flight???


    Nothing to do with flying but it has so many interesting and fun layers to it…

  8. Interesting. One thing all ten movies have in common is that I didn’t watch any of them. Neither on United nor elsewhere (incl. on the ground). I tend to eat, read, and sleep. And look out the window.

  9. I usually watch TV shows as they are shorter (often comedy or animated shows), but otherwise I don’t really care what I watch as I’m not really paying full attention or will fall asleep for parts of it.

    A few years ago I was watching one of the Harry Potter movies on a Transatlantic flight, and thinking ‘this seems awfully familiar’. Later I figured out that I watched the same movie on the same flight the previous year, but was asleep for half of it that time.

  10. Cranky, if you want to do an article about movies on flights then you need to study TUI Airways (formerly Thomson).

    Other less deep and meaningful forums (about air travel, cough TripAdvisor cough) are inundated with British holidaymakers asking “what movies are showing on the Dreamliner in June” or 4-6 months out. And yes it’s “on the Dreamliner” because they think that TUI is the only airline that flies the 787 (it beat BA to become the first UK airline to do so). Cue much irritation and fun from the regulars.

  11. I fly UA as my primary airline and watch very few movies, and those I do send me to sleep.

    That said I often find myself looking at the very comprehensive international/foreign language selection with subtitles. There’s usually a couple of Japanese/Korean/Indian action or comedies. So why not view another country’s culture (while dozing off)?

    As for TV, I did watch the entire Killing Eve series across two long hauls 3 weeks apart.

  12. I haven’t flown International since Christmas 2012, so my comment are a little dated.

    The one thing I hated so much was most movies I watched had multiple language subtitles embedded on the bottom of the screen even though the airlines flown (NWA, Delta, and Korean) all had multiple language channels (dubbed) for the same movies. It distracted me from really enjoying the movies and shows.

    Subtitles are one of the reasons I don’t watch foreign films as well. Why would I want to read the dialogue? If I wanted to read (and I do often), I would pull out my kindle or an actual book instead.

  13. One of the things that makes Delta special is the high quantity of titles on their AVOD as well as their streaming to watch. I just used the service a couple days ago: the streaming has about 150 movies and the AVOD 306. It’s an opportunity to watch the international titles that I more often than not cannot stream or rent at home. I watched Bandits! (a Nigerian comedy/drama), the Bold the Corrupt and the Beautiful (a Taiwanese drama), Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura, and Miracles of the Nayima General Store, two Japanese dramas.

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