Could tablets and smartphones kill the inflight movie screen?

By Bloomberg News, September 26 2017
Could tablets and smartphones kill the inflight movie screen?

Book a domestic flight on any of the Big Three U.S. airlines, and you won’t be sure whether the seat in front of you has a screen. Some do, while most don’t. Eventually maybe none will.

The proliferation of iPhones, iPads, and Android devices, in tandem with increasingly reliable inflight Wi-Fi, has led to a profound shift by many airlines, which now view entertainment on shorter flights as best delivered wirelessly, without the expense or hassles posed by screens.

As with most things on an airplane, the determining factor is poundage. Planting a screen in each seat adds weight, which burns additional fuel, which costs more money.

On top of that, the screens have a tendency to break as people poke and punch them – often to the annoyance of the passenger in front of them.

Today, the new kid on the block for in-flight entertainment, or IFE, is personal-device entertainment – the ability to stream TV and movies to passenger gadgets from a server on the plane. This video is typically free, although United still charges as much as US$7.99 to watch live television channels on planes equipped with DirecTV.

“For domestic flights, I really do see the industry trending toward streaming IFE,” said Jason Rabinowitz, director of airline research at Routehappy, a New York company that tracks airline amenities.

“It’s cheap for airlines to install, there’s no wiring, no weight penalty. These systems can be installed virtually overnight, and the costs to maintain these things are virtually nothing.”

iPad video killed the seatback screen star

The airlines ask: why install seat-back monitors that will be obsolete in a few years?

Only two of the national U.S. airlines, JetBlue and Virgin America, still have seat-back screens on all of their aircraft.

The rest have a mix of both options, given the collections of new and older aircraft in their domestic fleets. Southwest deployed streaming content in 2009 and has never purchased a seat with a video screen.

“What we really wanted to do was stay away from the seat screen, even back then,” said Tara Bamburg, Southwest’s manager of mobility, inflight entertainment, and Wi-Fi. “We foresaw as much as anyone could that customers are going to continue to travel with their devices.”

The largest carrier, American Airlines, surprised many in the industry when it recently decided to forgo video screens on 100 new Boeing 737 Max airplanes. American said more than 90 percent of its customers carry a device when they fly, so it just made sense.

Its first new Max 737s arrive later this year, around the time Southwest plans to begin flying its own. American also hinted that its future single-aisle aircraft will omit video screens, even though it has 40 Airbus A321s and 737s already in the pipeline that will still have them.

“Those phones and tablets are continually upgraded, they’re easy to use, and most importantly they are the technology that our customers have chosen,” the airline said in an internal note.

“So it makes sense for American to focus on giving customers the best entertainment and fast connection options rather than installing seat-back monitors that will be obsolete within a few years.”

Power to the passengers

And before you even ask, yes: airlines are also rushing to add power outlets at each seat.

American said half of its domestic planes will be so equipped by the end of next year, rising to more than 85 percent by 2021.

The juice will be critical as people spend more time surfing, watching movies, or both – either on the same device or multiple devices. That sort of terrestrial behavior is rapidly migrating onto airplanes, said Jamie Perry, JetBlue’s vice president of marketing.

“I watched a basketball game on the screen while doing some work on my laptop while listening to music on my phone,” Perry said in a telephone interview, describing his routine on a recent JetBlue flight from New York to Florida.

The airline has said it regularly sees more devices connected to its satellite-based, ViaSat Inc. Wi-Fi service than the number of passengers on some flights. In June, American selected ViaSat for broadband Wi-Fi on the screen-less 737 Max airplanes.

Wi-Fi problems

Wi-Fi won’t conquer international fleets just yet because seat screens are a staple on long hauls.

Perry said there are 10 to 12 major annual events, such as the Super Bowl or Academy Awards, that make live television “vital” for people who are flying.

“There is destination TV … and it doesn’t matter how many Hollywood movies you have,” he said. That said, JetBlue plans to retain screens for the foreseeable future because it serves families that often don’t have a device for each child.

Among the legacy carriers, Delta Air Lines has been the largest champion of domestic video screens, including those it is putting on its new Airbus A321s and Boeing 737-900ERs. But the carrier has declined to add screens on shorter-haul MD-80s and MD-90s or the Boeing 717s it acquired from Southwest.

It hasn’t decided if its new Bombardier Inc. CS100s will be equipped with video screens when those begin arriving next year, spokeswoman Catherine Sirna said in an e-mail. “Delta is choosing to invest in seat-back entertainment in addition to the ability to access content via mobile devices onboard while competitors remove options,” she wrote.

United skips screens for streaming 

United has seat-back video on 221 older Boeing 737s and two dozen 757s, about one-third of its mainline fleet. All of its new planes being flown domestically, including the 737-900ER, skip screens in favor of streaming.

“We’re just seeing the way customers are traveling, and they prefer to use their phone, they prefer to use their iPads, they prefer to use their laptops,” United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said.

Virgin America, meanwhile, is merging into Alaska Airlines which doesn’t have seat-back screens on its planes. This makes the future of Virgin’s domestic in-flight video murky. Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said the company hasn’t yet made any decisions on whether the same will happen to Virgin’s fleet.

For the long-haul warriors suddenly worried about their next 15-hour flight to Hong Kong, calm down: contrary to domestic flying, international fleets retain seat screens as a staple, due to longer flights.

Meal services requires the tray space on which your device often sits and many airlines consider their customized video offerings an integral part of their passenger experience. So leave the spare charger at home.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

13 Jan 2015

Total posts 584

Yet another US centric article from bloomberg

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Nov 2013

Total posts 475

But it has relevance here in Australia as both QF and VA are moving to this model.

I personally think its a good thing as the Qantas entertainment app for example offers a pretty good range of shows/movies

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Jan 2015

Total posts 106

But Virgin on the other hand, a couple of flights a month and you have watched everything they have for the year

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Nov 2013

Total posts 475

Same with Qantas...

I try to avoid flying early in the month so I can stretch out what I want to watch. The movie choice this month on QF is diabolical...

31 Mar 2014

Total posts 378

I personally really dislike having to use my tablet on the plane due to a lack of seat back screen. It means my tray table is always down and means meal time and drinks are always a struggle

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Jul 2016

Total posts 108

Qantas has that holder on the back of the seat which is useful if you have certain cases.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

11 Oct 2014

Total posts 692

We’re just seeing the way customers are traveling, and they prefer to use their phone, they prefer to use their iPads, they prefer to use their laptops,” United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said.

Gee, another optimistically up-beat Bloomberg article without reporters investigating the passenger's side of the market.

I'd suggest that the Bloomberg kids have a look at the copious number of complaints and reviews on Google Play Store regarding the United app, which is the only way to access any entertainment via an Android tablet / phone.

Universally, the app simply does not work for in-flight entertainment if you have a version of Android higher than v5.1 ie: 2 years old. So, if you have a version of the operating system that is new or less than two years old, it will not work on UA due to their lack of support for <all versions of Android 6 and 7>.

And of course, UA is happy to collect the 'access' fee and then tell you that they can't provide support for 'newer' versions of Android. BTW, Apple users are not immune either. Some interesting comments on that code are available also.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

02 Jan 2015

Total posts 70

Personally I like the seat back screen on International flights and with domestic the app on my phone is fine as I usually just listen to music.

31 Mar 2014

Total posts 378

Interestingly I just got this message from a friend:

flew back from Sydney(to Perth) on Monday on Virgin.. got their bunky 737, no screens, sigh.

That pretty much sums up my feelings as well. 5 hours with the tray table down gets pretty uncomfortable.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 Jun 2015

Total posts 105

I preferred it when they had seat back screens. Its like im being forced to get a tablet.

Neither virgin ot qantas as i understand it work on a laptop so i am left with a tiny phone screen since i don't want a phablet or nothing at all.

11 Mar 2012

Total posts 316

Just set up a mounting location that can be adjusted for a variety of tablets plus power nearby and the screens can go.

12 Dec 2012

Total posts 1027

I hope not. Assuming they still provide the same IFE content, just over wifi instead of a in seat screen, that still requires the pax to have a device, with an OS/device that works with their app. An app which is different for every airline, and since they don't have the app available for download/installation to the device locally along with the content, you need to know which app to get before you get on the plane.

This whole "move to wifi app based IFE" is really annoying.
AA's inflight internet service works just fine on all of my devices. Their IFE app works on none of them.

Get a system where apps aren't needed, that has the same content as the standard seat back systems have, get working power at each seat, and have a number tablets available for loan/rent for pax that don't have devices, and sure, go ahead an remove the screens, but while they insist on using propriety apps to even see what the IFE content is with no idea if the app will even work, hell no.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

11 Oct 2014

Total posts 692

There's a lot of sense in there, Himeno.

I am somewhat amazed that some bright programmer hasn't come up with a uniform app for ALL airlines (albeit, currently needed in Apple iOS, Alphabet Android and Windows / Linux flavours). And catering for Panasonic, Rockwell-Collins and one or two other IFE systems. Surely the payment / cc processing and airline login - complete with FF number shouldn't be that difficult. But the reality is that we are living in a world where each independent airline wants to be precious .. er, 'unique' to their customer(s) .. and end up with a satisfaction rating of less than zero, when it all goes to mud.

Rather than removing IFE from cabins, I've often thought the other way. Sure, eliminating in-seat video screens saves airlines a small fortune in weight but stop and think for a moment.

Why don't airlines make better use of what they have? An airline could eliminate a lot of weight by removing in-flight mags, for instance, and place a digital version on line. Similarly, get rid of printed menus .. and offer them online and even as a digital choice option. This would save a ton of weight also .. and with digital ordering could simplify work practices, resulting in cost-savings and providing a more personal choice / satisfaction level. Newspapers and magazines? Gone. Mount them digitally on the server daily. There's one helluva lot of weight that could be eliminated, as opposed to removing screens and cabling. And it becomes inclusive for every passenger. No need to worry about Fred or Wilma leaving their device at home.

02 Dec 2016

Total posts 32

Seat back screen is much more preferable to me. I either have phone or laptop, no ipad. Phone is tool small to watch anything decent. Laptop is too cumbersome and you can't eat and watch - plus you need seatback power as well.
Maybe we'll start paying extra to get seats with screens <sigh>

I also have to wonder about the effects of a couple of hundred active wi-fi devices in very close proximity to each other.


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

31 Jul 2017

Total posts 2

Its all about cost cutting - now passengers have to bring their own screens so it saves the screen and wiring costs. I personally find that using iPad in virgin just Ok on short hauls, at least Qantas has the band in the seat if I had the right iPad case. For long haul flights as others have said nothing beats having a screen in the seat

23 Feb 2015

Total posts 262

As others have said, a universal tablet holder (one that assumes no case) would be a great way to make this acceptable as an approach. Current set up is no good.

17 Sep 2015

Total posts 388

BrisbanePE, your sentiments about keeping or installing IFE as screens would be shared by many of us, including me.

I don't always bring a 'device.' The viewing quality is generally better on a seatback screen.

This US-centric article talks about USA airlines, which should never be the model for the rest of the world.

07 May 2016

Total posts 17

The only electronics I am prepared to carry around on a non-business trip are a smartphone and maybe an e-reader, and in any case I wouldn't want to have to struggle with loading new apps on an iPad for each airline, so I find it really annoying when the airlines tout the removal of seat-back screens as a convenience for the customer. For many it's an inconvenience. Just like "we don't accept legal tender cash money to pay for your purchase" is explained as a convenience for the customer. I don't remember how they handled the announcements and safety videos that used to interrupt the seat-back movie from time to time. If we can't have seat-back screens then at least bring back shared screens for flight-related announcements e.g. progress and safety.

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