Flights in exceptionally compact coach seats are somewhat more bearable thanks to the seat-back television screens that sit inches from your nose — even closer if the passenger in the seat ahead brazenly opts to recline. In-flight entertainment and a can of pop are sometimes the only diversions a passenger has.
But soon the only diversion may be the can of pop.
Domestic carriers are increasingly moving to eliminate seat-back screens on short-haul flights, and experts predict the trend will continue as airlines take delivery of new planes or retrofit existing aircraft. The reason for the change is simple: Passengers are bringing their own screens with them, and, in turn, airlines are happy to dispense with the expensive upkeep and additional bulk of in-flight entertainment systems.
“More than 95 percent of travelers bring a smartphone with them, and that’s great,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. “But it may not be the best device for watching a movie, or even a TV show. It may be fine for watching a couple minutes of a YouTube video. But when ‘Black Panther’ becomes available, you may not want to watch on a tiny phone screen.”
“If you didn’t bring your laptop, or didn’t bring your tablet, or those aren’t charged, you’re not going to have a great time,” he added.
Airlines are not expecting passengers to supply their own content, just the screens to view it. As those seat-back television screens are eliminated, airlines are adding streaming content that can be watched through personal devices. It’s a model that Southwest Airlines has used for years, and it’s since been adopted by everyone from bargain basement carriers such as Norwegian Air to legacy brands such as American Airlines.
But for many passengers, the idea of no seat-back screen is as welcome as shrinking legroom or an odiferous seat mate.
“The problems are simple and tangible,” said Patrick Smith, a local pilot and author of the blog Ask the Pilot. “With a seat-back screen, you plug in your earphones and go. There are no power issues, no extra cords or wires, and the space in front of you is kept clear for eating, drinking, or whatever. Watching with your own device is a lot more cumbersome.”
Smith, who wrote about the topic on his blog earlier this year (“Dear airlines, please don’t take away our video screens!”), said that fliers may be bringing their personal devices on planes, but he contends that most passengers still want their seat-back screens.
“In-seat systems are heavy and expensive — upwards of $10,000 per seat,” he said. ”But all airplane components are expensive, and the typical screen, over the course of its lifespan, will have entertained thousands of passengers. They’re reliable, convenient, and just so downright useful.”
In some cases, they’re also necessary for keeping travelers calm and reasonably sane. Heather Poole, a flight attendant and author of the book “Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet,” said that passengers get antsy, and usually annoyed, when they board a flight without screens.
“Even if passengers do bring on their own entertainment, most of them still need a place to charge the device in order to use it,” she said.
Those built-in screens can also be essential for travelers with small children.
“I know many families travel with tablet devices, but the seat-back screens and in-flight entertainment offers kids something they can’t get anywhere else. It makes flying exciting for them and keeps them engaged and calm,” said Caz Makepeace, who writes the family-oriented travel blog Y Travel. “They get to explore new movies, shows, and games they may have not seen before instead of the same things they have loaded on their devices.”
Those seat-back screens also show more current Hollywood content. Movie studios are less inclined to offer fresh hit films to streaming services for fear of piracy.
In addition to the expense of installation and upkeep, airlines are also keen to remove the systems because they add weight, and more weight means more fuel consumption.
The largest carrier, American Airlines, made headlines last year when it opted not to add video screens on 100 new 737 Max planes.
United Airlines is also skipping the screens on its single-aisle jets in favor of a Wi-Fi connection. A spokesperson for the airline said in an e-mail “we are expanding our personal device entertainment offerings across our fleet, which offers customers complimentary access to hundreds of movies and TV shows on their personal devices.”
There are advantages for passengers to phasing out the screens. Those clunky metal boxes that sit under seats are eliminated. Harteveldt said airlines are adding more power outlets to accommodate personal devices. Internet is also improving. A study release in January from the travel technology company Routehappy found that the number of airlines with Wi-Fi grew in 2017. The speed of Wi-Fi is also increasing, although most airlines still charge for the service.
“Ultimately there are so few people without a device that the real impact is minimal,” said industry blogger Brett Snyder.
But airline advocates and passengers are quick to point out the failings of removing screens from unpleasantly close quarters.
“The problems with using your own device includes lack of battery power and lack of space,” said Paul Hudson, president of the organization Flyers Rights. “Laptops, or even tablets, are difficult to maneuver sitting in shrunken seats with tiny tray tables the size of ashtrays. There may also be issues with slow, expensive Wi-Fi or lack of charging ports.
It’s also impossible for a beverage and laptop to share a tray table. In turbulence, that beverage can become a laptop’s worse enemy. An aggressive recliner can also wreak havoc for those trying to use a laptop. Once that seat goes back, a laptop can’t be fully opened. Worse, it can get pinned between the tray and the seat.
There are currently no carriers that have publicly announced plans to remove screens from international flights, and not all carriers are doing away with the screens domestically. Jetblue, which has been at the forefront of in-flight entertainment by offering live TV, along with streaming content and free Wi-Fi, has increased the size of screens from 6.5 inches to 10 inches in economy.
While its competitors are dropping screens in favor of streaming entertainment, Delta Airlines, another front-runner for in-flight entertainment, is offering both. According to Andrew Wingrove, managing director of product strategy and customer experience at Delta, the decision to keep and enhance the screens was based on millions of customer surveys.
“While we certainly see customers utilize their own devices, when given the choice, they tend to use the seat backs,” Wingrove said. “We believe in giving customers that control, to decide how they want consume content, as opposed to dictating it to them.”
If seat back screens or Wi-Fi are important for your flight experience, make sure to research offerings on the airline’s website before you purchase tickets. And don’t feel out-of-step with your fellow travelers if you still prefer to watch movies on a seat-back screen rather than a phone. Some of the most experienced travelers in the industry are still grappling with the change.
“I was on a Jetblue flight recently and the people in my row watched the monitors, but all had a smartphone out in their hand, and they were going back and forth,” said Harteveldt. “It’s how we live now. We’re using multiple screens. But I think the bottom line is that change is difficult, and this is a big change for most of us.”Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and on Instagram @Chris_Muther.