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American to drop seatback entertainment


American Airlines has announced that its fleet of new Boeing 737 MAX planes, which start arriving later this year, won't have seatback screens for inflight entertainment, marking a new stage of the second revolution in just over a dozen years in IFE.

Instead of the built-in screens, passengers will get access to the whole library of movies, music and live TV the airline offers, displayed on passengers' phones, tablets and laptops, using the plane's WiFi systems. Using the entertainment won't require paying for a WiFi connection.

American says that 90% or more of its passengers already are flying with suitable devices, and that they prefer using them; often they have better picture quality than the seatbacks.

From the airline's point of view, eliminating the screens saves initial cost, allows using thinner seats which in turn allows squeezing more seats into a plane, and reduces aircraft weight, which saves fuel.

For those who don't carry their own electronics, it's possible a rental market might develop, similar to the airport-based stores that rent movie players.

Inflight entertainment has come a long way since 1936, when the Hindenburg offered a piano bar on its 3-day journey from Europe to New York. Until recently, the big news was the spread of personal screens—in fact, it was one of the big advertising pulls for JetBlue when it first started.

Other airlines have been making their entertainment libraries available for personal devices over the past two years, and eliminating screens on some planes, but American's move is the latest and largest. The airline plans to keep them, however, on larger planes used on international routes, including the 777, 787 and the new A350s it will start receiving this year.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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Now that I can download Netflix features to my tablet, this is not an important feature for me on a domestic flight.  But I would think the incremental cost for a flight's passenger is rather small and it seems pretty small of American to do this.

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

DrF, not everyone has their own streaming service, but the theory is that nearly everyone has a screen, usually better resolution than the seatback. American is, in essence, providing a streaming service for those who don't have it.

As for being small: those seatback screens go for north of $10,000 each because of all the issues involved in aircraft safety, etc. Not to mention the systems they are attached to. About $3 million average per plane saved this way, and American's order for the MAX is 100 planes, with 50 more on option. That adds up to $300 to $450 not small at all. And that's before we consider the savings in fuel, due to weight reduction.

Jonathan, as you've noted, the older generation of 737s on most airlines don't have seatback monitors; they were originally planned for the new MAX planes, but that was changed. On the older planes, the whole IFE setup also didn't exist; I believe they are being equipped during renovation and upgrades, as they happen.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

I'm curious...Did the focus group favor it? On the Sunset Limited last summer, without even WiFi, I saw quite a few people with DVD players, so I'd imagine a streaming service would be popular. Even though the best entertainment was the window! 

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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