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Pneumatic Airline Music, Greatly Missed

June 7th, 2008 · 5 Comments

By Garland Pollard

Miss those pneumatic airline audio programs?

Of course we do, though sometimes the plastic air tubes for onboard entertainment would poke into your ear if the rubber end was loose, I think. As my Very Astute Companion says, there was “the magic of being able to plug anything into the arm of a chair. It didn’t look like it would transport music, did it?”

Like the L-1011s, DC-10s and 747s that they inhabited, on board airline entertainment is disappearing. It has moved rapidly to an era where fliers pick the music and movies, not the airlines. JetBlue and AirTran have XM, no different from what you get at home. And headphones for the last 20 years or so are now electronic, no longer those plastic air tubes that stewardesses sold in plastic bags.

The pneumatic airline headphones were made by AVID Airline Products, which made the first pneumatic headsets for Trans World Airlines in 1963. Their headsets, made in Middletown, Rhode Island, were on 97 percent of all airliners, according to their website. AVID is still a leader in supplies for the airline industry.

Two early pioneers of programming the industry were Chicago radio man John Doremus, who owned John Doremus Inc. There was also Orange, Calif.-based AEI Inflight. In Europe, there was Inflight Productions Ltd.

AEI did some innovative things. In 1999, for the 40th anniversary of the first 707 transcontinental flight, AEI put together a special program for American Airlines. American Airlines recreated the first flight with a Boeing 757 specially painted in the markings of the original Boeing 707 jet that made the historic flight on Jan. 25, 1959. American operated the commemorative flight as Flight 3, departing New York Kennedy Airport at noon and arriving in Los Angeles at 3 p.m. local time. AEI’s music program for the flight included 1959 music including “Mack the Knife.”

In May 2001, DMX Music of Los Angeles merged with AEI Music Network to form DMX/AEI Music. The company now does mood music for retailers. We wonder about some of the other playlists and archives of DMX/AEI, and whether these compilations would have value in an era of iTunes and iPods? Of course they would, though copyright issues abound. The reality? They would have value on radio, too. That is if they are still around; often companies do not realize the value of their history, and throw it away.

But there is value.

For instance, today radio stations are now REPLAYING original Kasey Kasem American Top 40 radio shows. What a fun thing AT-40 is to listen to, a treasure trove of nostalgia, not just for the songs, but for the commentary in between. The same could be said for airline disk jockeys, who were often experts in their particular genres. For instance, National Airlines had veteran producer Ray Wallick programming their Sunshine Jazz Hour.

And Delta now posts iMix lists of their on board music, so that folks can listen to the same songs on their iPods. Great idea. Says Smita Premkumar, a Delta staffer, on their company blog:

“Check this out y’all. We received so many requests from flight attendants and customers about how they want the names of songs that we play on-board (for boarding music). So we decided to create our own iMix on iTunes. Now you all can download the individual songs for 99 cents or get the whole collection if you want!”

Many of us can recall OUR airline playlists, especially on long flights where the loop played over and over again. The one playlist that BrandlandUSA recalls best is of a summer round trip from JFK to LHR on TWA in 1978. The songs that I recall in the soft rock category/channel are:

  • “Once, Twice Three Times a Lady” by the Commodores
  • “FM” by Steely Dan
  • “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones
  • “Reminiscing” by Little River Band
  • “Love Will Find a Way” by Pablo Cruise

I made my own little iMix. However, I am not sure about the exact songs, but do not have a July or August 1978 edition of TWA Ambassador handy in order to see if my recollections are correct.

Interested in the history of the genre? Entertainment Weekly has a great story posted online. A timeline of inflight entertainment is online at the World Airline Entertainment Association. And the website Ultra Swank has a great story of airline culture during its heyday.

More branding stories of interest:

We're Lovin': Ethiopian Airlines
Vanhala: Small is the New Big
See the TWA L-1011 in Kansas City
Hollywood's Lesson in Lena Horne and Betty White
American Eagle Might Have Flown as TWA
Nashville Musician Fights to Preserve RCA Legacy

Tags: Airlines

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Al-X // Jul 25, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    I was quite surprised to find those kind of headphones on an ANA flight in an old Airbus A320 from Fukuoka to Tokyo Haneda on Thursday this week. And even in Japan where everyone owns at least 2 IPods and MP3 cell phones, 10% of the passengers were using the pneumatic headsets. Looked strange to me cause I never saw that before.

  • 2 Louis // Jan 21, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Heard it today.. Jefferson Starship Runaway..

  • 3 Louis // Jan 21, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    I took a TWA flight that summer from STL-LAX (727-31) and remember some of the same songs that you mention. I don’t remember the LRB song, but I do remember that “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow was also on the list.

  • 4 J.Bernhardt // Mar 21, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    Yes, those were the good ol days. the headphones were a little uncomfortable-but they made the flight a pleasant interesting experience, when they had to turn down the lights so people could sleep, on the long flights. the playlist I remember from 1975 had Linda Ronstad’s Your No Good, or When Will I Be loved, Elton’s John’s Pinball Wizard and probably Captain and Tenille.

  • 5 Garland Pollard // Mar 25, 2016 at 11:27 am

    i am so glad someone else remembers the playlist too! Thanks J. Bernhardt!

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