Slots on a plane: a 40-year troubled history

Recent proposals to allow gambling on airplanes in order to boost the profitability of the airline industry have raised eyebrows. Veterans of both the gambling and airline industries have seen this story several times before, and each time, it has ended badly.

Let’s take a look at the history of attempts to allow gambling at 30,000 feet, and ask whether this time, it might be different.

1981: Singapore Airlines’ slot experiment

The first airline to include casino games as part of their inflight entertainment package was Singapore’s flag carrier. Back in 1981, the airline introduced lightweight slot machines on their Singapore-San Francisco route. The experiment lasted just two months, with the airline citing ‘operational difficulties’ (i.e., the machines were so lightweight that they broke down) behind their removal.

1998: The Swissair Flight 111 Disaster

On September 2, 1998, this Swissair flight from New York to Geneva crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia, with the loss of all crew and passengers on board. The crash investigation concluded that the cause of the disaster was a busted fuse connected to the overloaded entertainment system. Chillingly, this system included in-flight casino games, which it had been claimed would boost revenues for the airline by allowing passengers to gamble during the flight. The crash led to the swift removal of such systems from the fleets of the world.

2004-2005: Ryanair & Virgin Air tease the gambling public, then get cold feet

In the mid-2000’s, low-cost carrier Ryanair and long-hauler Virgin Airlines both sought out publicity by announcing plans to include casino games as part of their in-flight entertainment. First, Ryanair’s Michael O’ Leary mused about allowing passengers to fly for free if they would play slots while onboard his aircraft. The following year, Richard Branson promised that the next generation of Virgin’s first-class cabins would feature casino games such as roulette, and blackjack, even joking that on a Virgin plane, passengers would find two ways to get lucky. But both bosses went on to dampen down these claims in 2006, citing issues with the Wi-Fi technology of the time.

2010: The Jet Lounge design

At the start of the last decade, French design firm Airjet came up with the concept of a casino lounge for private aircraft, including a blackjack table and bar area. We don’t know if any of their super rich clientele actually fitted out one of their Learjets with this chic design, but as of 2021, none of the big carriers have brought the concept onboard one of their aircraft. Most probably, the large amount of space it would require on a plane – as well as the fact that the majority of people don’t actually gamble – makes such a casino lounge prohibitively expensive. If regular carriers ever do allow passengers to play casino games on a flight, it would need to be while seated, using the kind of systems which were disastrous on Swissair 111, and found to be unviable by both Ryanair and Virgin Airlines.

2021: Airlines need cash, and they need it fast

Fast forward to the present day, and the airline industry desperately needs to make money to bolster their business model, now decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Assuming the vaccines successfully kickstart the return of the travel industry, several airline bosses have suggested that they should be allowed to offer passengers the chance to stake wagers on casino games and sports events while in the air. Although WiFi services have come on leaps and bounds since the Swissair disaster in 1998, how this would technically work is unclear. Presumably, passengers would have to continue putting their smartphones on flight mode, otherwise they would be likely to play at online casinos such as Mr Green, and not boost the airline’s profits by playing at an in-house casino. What’s more, there would likely need to be legislative changes, especially in the US, to allow gambling above their airspace. And even then, the airlines would probably need to gain a licence to operate as a casino. The most likely region to embrace gambling on an aircraft might be Europe. Most European countries have already legalized casinos and sports betting, although flying over those jurisdictions where it is illegal (most obviously, France) might pose a challenge. It’s going to be interesting to see if slots on a plane will become a thing in the 2020’s, or if it will be another lost decade for gambling while up in the air.

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