Book a domestic flight on any of the big U.S. airlines, and you won’t be sure whether the seat in front of you has a screen. Some do. Most don’t. Eventually maybe none will.
The proliferation of iPhones, iPads, and Android devices, in tandem with more 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 of 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 gadgets from a server on the plane. This is typically free, although United still charges as much as $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, chief of airline research at Routehappy Inc., 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.”
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 Airways Corp. and Virgin America Inc., have seat-back screens on all aircraft. The rest have a mix of both, given the collections of new and older aircraft in their domestic fleets. Southwest Airlines deployed streaming content in 2009 and has never bought a seat with a 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 Group Inc., surprised many in the industry when it cut video screens on 100 new Boeing 737 Max airplanes. American said it made sense because more than 90 percent of its customers carry a device when they fly. Its first new Max 737s arrive later this year, about the time Southwest plans to begin flying its own. American also hinted that future single-aisle aircraft will omit the screens, even though its 40 Airbus A321s and 737s in the pipeline will 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.”
Airlines are 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, and more than 85 percent by 2021. The juice will be critical as people spend more time surfing, watching movies, or both, either on one device or multiple ones.
Jamie Perry, JetBlue’s vice president of marketing, described his recent JetBlue flight from New York to Florida: “I watched a basketball game on the screen while doing some work on my laptop while listening to music on my phone.”
The airline said it 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 won’t conquer international fleets just yet because seat screens are a staple on long hauls. Meal services require the tray space on which a device often sits, and many airlines consider their customized video offerings integral to passenger experience.
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 won’t add screens on shorter-haul MD-80s and MD-90s or the Boeing 717s it gained from Southwest.
United Continental Holdings Inc. 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 flown domestically, including the 737-900ER, skip screens.
“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 Air Group Inc. Alaska spokesman Bobbie Egan said the firm hasn’t made any decisions on whether the same will happen to Virgin’s fleet.
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