Airlines Are Phasing Out Seat-Back Entertainment Screens Because We Bring Enough Screens With Us

Photo credit: Rich Polk/Getty Images
Photo credit: Rich Polk/Getty Images

The days of squeezing into an airplane and being greeted by the photo of an unnaturally happy flight attendant who never breaks a stare—instead of a real one, of course—could soon be over. The in-flight entertainment screens that taunt your face on almost every trip are on the way out at some airlines.


Both United and American Airlines are beginning to phase out the screens on planes that make shorter flights, according to The New York Times. The Times didn’t quote the airlines as giving any particular reasons for phasing them out, but did give some convincing reasons as to why they might: The screens are expensive, add weight to the aircraft, become out of date quickly, and, honestly, passengers bring enough of their own screens on board in the first place.

Dan McKone, head of the travel and transportation practice at consulting firm L.E.K., told the Times the screens can cost $10,000 per seat, which makes them kind of a perplexing investment considering how many people turn them off or ignore them for other devices (or even, gasp, print materials and books!).

United and American want to offer content that can be streamed to devices in place of in-flight entertainment screens, since analysts told the Times most U.S. passengers fly with at least one device. From the Times:

“Some airlines are looking at this from the standpoint of cost savings by removing the hardware,” [travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt] said. “They reduce the weight of the aircraft, and they reduce the expense associated with maintaining that equipment.” ...

The decision on whether to update the screens, Mr. McKone said, is mainly economic. “I think you’re going to continue to see increasing economic pressure not to replace I.F.E., particularly on the shorter-haul fleets,” he said. Mr. McKone predicted that more domestic flights in the future would offer content streaming on a bring-your-own-device model.

But as odd as it sounds, some airlines are using those screens to differentiate themselves from the companies that assume all of us want to use our laptops or smartphones to entertain us on flights. From the Times:

In 2017, Delta rolled out free in-flight mobile messaging, and the airline is in the process of installing new screens and making more content available in-flight.

“As we look at the way they live their life on the ground with more and more media at their fingertips, we’re looking to replicate that up in the sky,” said Andrew Wingrove, Delta’s managing director for product strategy and customer experience. “We believe strongly in having that extra screen for customers in the seatback.”

... JetBlue Airways, which has made in-flight entertainment a crucial part of its brand image since its debut, is investing in new entertainment systems for its A320 and A321 planes, said Mariya Stoyanova, the airline’s director of product development. ...

The airlines rely on their in-flight media offerings not only to foster brand loyalty, but also to serve a more practical need: distracting tightly packed economy-class passengers.


Stoyanova told the Times having live television in every seat was “unheard of” when JetBlue began flying in 2000. She called it part of the company’s “brand commitment,” which is understandable, but that was also two decades ago—the era of phones with 12-button keypads and Snake as their primary form of entertainment, not that there’s anything wrong with that last part.

You know what? Perhaps that’s the next big thing for in-flight entertainment. Get rid of those dumb movies we can mostly access on our dumb smartphones. Put Snake on all of the screens. The world will be a better place.

Staff writer, Jalopnik


James T Quirk

Cool except that on a long haul flight if you are taking away screens but not providing power sockets there’s gonna be a problem. I just did a 6.5 hr flight to Ireland on Norwegian, 737-max, no screens, no wifi. I’d cached some amazon and netflix for the ride, but my battery was not having a good time of it.