There was a time not so long ago when airline music and audio came from what were basically stethoscopes. It was the era of the pneumatic airline headset. The music was piped in through an air tube. The airline had plastic headphones, with rubber earpieces. They plugged into your seat with two rubber nubbins. Airline logos were actually on the front, and they came wrapped in little bags as you could not reuse them.
They were not ideal even as most recall them fondly. Sometimes the plastic air tubes for onboard entertainment would poke into your ear if the rubber end was loose. As a 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 with headphones, 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.
“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 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, listed perhaps in some old Ambassador magazine, 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
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.