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When French airline OpenSkies wanted to upgrade entertainment options on the small fleet of Boeing 757s it flies between Paris and New York, it decided against wiring its aircraft with a traditional seat-back video system.

Instead, it bought nearly 500 Apple Inc. AAPL +0.05% iPads and preloaded them with an array of video to hand out to passengers on board.

Rather than the up to $3 million per airplane that typical in-flight entertainment systems can cost to install, according to industry executives, the airline says it spent about $250,000 per plane for its iPad-based system, which the premium-class-only airline lends out free to all of its passengers.