(Note: I’ve published an updated review to reflect the status of Southwest’s in-flight entertainment as of February 2014. Check it out! And if you fly Southwest as a family a lot, check out my Complete Guide to Flying Southwest with Kids!)
On our recent flights to and from the Florida Panhandle, we flew on several Southwest WiFi-enabled aircraft that featured the new free Dish Network TV service as well as TV shows and movies on demand that are streamable to your own WiFi-capable devices. Although Southwest has had reasonably-priced WiFi for some time, July 2013 is the first month that Southwest has offered entertainment on demand as well. My family, equipped with our iPad 2, iPad mini, and two iPhones (yes, 4 devices for 3 people), were more than ready to give the service a test-run!
Our first aircraft (that carried us all the way from OAK to Panama City Beach, with two stops), had serious technical issues. The flight attendants were proactive in doing what they could to fix it, including radioing the company that offers the service to troubleshoot our plane in-flight. Although we managed eventually to connect to the WiFi network, the TV and movie options never loaded. Annoying, but par for the course with any new service. And since we had plenty of content loaded locally to our iPads as well as WiFi service for web-browsing, we were sufficiently entertained.
The WiFi speed was pretty good, but the best part about the WiFi was the cost. Southwest used to charge for WiFi by the flight segment, which would have been very expensive for us flying three separate segments in one day. However, we were happy to find out that Southwest now charges $8 for a single device to access WiFi for a full day of travel. What a deal! We signed up our larger iPad for the service and were able to do a bit of web surfing for just $8. Definitely worth it even for leisure travelers.
On our return flight, we finally got to give the full entertainment service a complete test-run, as the TV and movies were all running with no technical issues. We spent most of our time watching the free live Dish Network TV, although we did browse the TV episodes that were on demand, as well as take a look at the movies that were viewable for a fee. All-in-all, the options weren’t bad.
The only major negative was the advertisements. Every time you selected a new TV channel, you had to watch an ad. This isn’t very conducive to channel-surfing to see what is on each channel. I ended up just picking a channel that I liked and sticking with it to avoid repeat ads.
The other minor negative was that I found the TV channels a bit lacking in variety. We had about 10 channels on our flight. According to Southwest’s website, those channels include: Bravo, CNBC, FOX 5 New York (WNYW), FOX Business Network, FOX News Channel, Golf Channel, MLB.com (when games available), MSNBC, NBC 4 (WNBC), and NFL Network. As you can see, there’s a lot of Fox, a lot of sports, and a little NBC was thrown into the mix. If you are used to the many TV choices on Virgin American or JetBlue and aren’t a sports or news junkie, there is little for you to view. And for young kids, there are no live TV channels that will fit the bill. Luckily, I’m a big Real Housewives franchise fan (pathetic, I know), so Bravo suited me just fine.
There are similarly no kid options in the (free) TV episodes that are on demand. The movie choices are pretty good, however, with a mixture of newer releases and classics. Unfortunately, movies are only available for an additional fee. But there are at least a few movies that will suit most children in the mix at the moment, including Babe and Despicable Me.
In short, we were pretty happy with the pricing and selection. But if you travel often with your kids on Southwest, your best bet is still to load up your personal iPad with movies and TV episodes from iTunes if you want real selection. For adults, however, Southwest provides more than enough to keep you busy and not break the bank.