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Airlines Consider Getting Rid of In-Flight Entertainment–But Should They?

Airlines Consider Getting Rid of In-Flight Entertainment–But Should They?
Joe Cortez

Every so often, the topic of in-flight entertainment comes up, and both flyers and airlines ask if they are necessary. With many dropping them for domestic and regional operations, some carriers are doubling-down on their entertainment investment. Flyers are left with the debate of letting them go the way of other archaic products or considering whether or not they may have value yet.

In-flight entertainment screens can be a boom or bust play. At best, they let you catch up on HBO from three seasons ago; At worst, they provide a dark reflection of your current life, making you question why you thought basic economy was a good buy when you knew your seat assignment would end in “B” or “E.”

Regardless of how you feel about them, airlines have a strange relationship with the little screens that provide passengers with a selection of movies and television programs. Gone are the days when you could plug headphones into the seat and listen to air traffic control on United Airlines’ Channel 9. Now, airlines want to entertain you with a customized entertainment experience. And, if you fly domestic, that will require you to use your own device, airline app, and battery life.

According to Bloomberg, three major American carriers will remove the screens entirely from their domestic fleets. United will join two airlines that recently announced a loyalty split–Alaska Airlines and American Airlines–in removing the screens from the majority of their domestic Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 airframes. In doing so, all three will share something in common with Southwest Airlines: all in-flight entertainment will be delivered via in-flight Wi-Fi to personal devices.

The trend of removing screens isn’t limited to the United States. Simple Flying reports that international carriers including Etihad Airways, Qantas, and Virgin Australia have all pulled in-flight entertainment on narrow-body regional aircraft. The incentives are clear for operators: fewer screens mean less hardware, resulting in lighter aircraft that have better fuel efficiency, leading to lower costs.

In-flight entertainment screens–and their optional features–can also create trouble for flyers. In 2015, one flyer claimed he was banned from flying due to “hacking” 20 in-flight entertainment systems and allegedly using them to gain access to the aircraft controls. More recently, a 24-year-old woman gave her account of sexual harassment through the in-flight entertainment chat aboard a Virgin Atlantic flight to CNN. Although the behavior was addressed by flight attendants, the damage was already done. The flyer said the experience was “Exhausting and it makes you feel unsafe.”

BYO Tablet?

For airlines, the potential solution rests squarely on flyers. Data from American Airlines shared with Bloomberg suggests travelers often carry two devices with them when they travel: a smartphone and a larger personal device, like a tablet or laptop computer. And passengers often tell American they would rather have more power outlets than screens at every seat.

With American and others dropping screens, their goal is to improve wireless internet connectivity to improve the customer experience. Through faster internet access, travelers can still watch their favorite films and television programs, or have the luxury of working or playing at 30,000 feet. Shopping is also a draw for some flyers, and carriers like JetBlue and others offer incentives for those who make purchases on Amazon while aboard their flights.

But one of the core problems in this plan is one created by those same airlines: shrinking seat pitch. With between 30 and 32 inches of space between the back of one seat and front of another, using a regular-sized laptop aboard a flight can be uncomfortable in of itself. Even with improved Wi-Fi connections, 30 inches of space is not enough to use a 15-inch laptop to work or watch movies.

Hack the Hangar

Not all airlines are sold on dropping in-flight entertainment from their customer experience plans. In 2018, WestJet invited flyers to meet with some of the world’s largest tech companies for what they called “Hack in the Hangar:” A summit intended to brainstorm new angles to in-flight entertainment. And at the end of 2018, Delta Air Lines committed seatback screens, investing more resources in their entertainment arm, Delta Flight Products. Delta and JetBlue see the move as a way to differentiate themselves from discount carriers and their legacy competition.

If all else fails, flyers can always fall back on the “Survival Guide for IFE Emergencies,” where fellow FlyerTalkers offer alternatives to watching the video screens in front of them. Some of our favorite suggestions include: “Learn to read a foreign language by figuring out the relationship between English and other languages on the safety card,” “Ask a flight attendant for extra pillows and blankets and build a fort,” and “Memorize [Oneworld] routes from the magazine and add helpful future route suggestions with a red pen.” As with everything on airplanes, try these suggestions at your own risk.


[Image: Shutterstock/GagliardiPhotography]

View Comments (24)


  1. dliesse

    October 10, 2019 at 6:36 pm

    I haven’t followed the United Airlines forum for a while so this is news to me, but if Channel 9 is gone then there is absolutely no reason left to favor them over any other airline.

    Aside from that, I’ve thought for years that the inflight entertainment on any airline was just slightly more positive than useless. I use my flight time now to catch up on my reading.

  2. am1108

    October 10, 2019 at 7:46 pm

    No, They shouldn’t… although I can receive streaming content on my phone I’d rather not use it and decrease the battery life especially when United only offers two seat plugs for most rows… at least Alaska offers plugs at every seat and in a convenient place. Also on most planes the seatback IFE is at head level and with your own tablet, phone etc, you usually have to rest it onto the tray table or hold it which is annoying.

  3. SpartyAir

    October 10, 2019 at 9:04 pm

    I would be in enthusiastic favor of United removing video screens as long as they remove reclining seats to accommodate use of personal video devices.

  4. FlyingNone

    October 10, 2019 at 9:55 pm

    Another ridiculous idea that we will soon be reading as “we are listening to our customers, this is what they want”…..when in reality the customer was never polled or asked what they want – ever. Dumping on passengers and expecting every human being including elderly and parents to be carrying an iPhone or iPad for their own personal viewing. Can you just see it now, a parent with 3-4 kids juggling iPads and devices (if they aren’t lost and damaged first in transit through the terminal or left in the rental car, etc)…..or maybe airlines could sell these devices right in the terminal – money is no object.

  5. jonsail

    October 11, 2019 at 2:31 am

    Another reason (among many) that Delta is my preferred American airline.

  6. jrpallante

    October 11, 2019 at 4:33 am

    I am perfectly content to bring my own entertainment on my tablet. (Too old to watch anything on my phone). I recently took a round-the-world trip in business class that included 8 flights totaling 60 hours, and I never once used the IFE, even though that was a big marketing point for all the airlines. On longer trips, power can be an issue in economy class, but never in First or Biz. I often wondered who actually uses the seatback screens, but just yesterday the guy next to me on LAX-DEN was using the touchscreen to play some simple word game, where he was trying to create as many words as possible from a fixed set of letters. I was listening to an audiobook, but I kept glancing at his screen and wanted to scream out words (he was not very good at this game). Ironically, we were in the first class bulkhead, and he could barely reach the screen in front of him, and there was no remote control. IMHO, airlines could easily do away with IFE, and replace it with reminders in the boarding area to download some content from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc… More power ports throughout the econ cabin would be helpful too, but any seasoned traveler knows to bring back-up power.

  7. DEN

    October 11, 2019 at 5:17 am

    Connecting to IFE is about as safe as leavening your car unlocked at the mall during peak Holiday shopping season.


  8. downinit

    October 11, 2019 at 6:02 am

    Traveling with a tablet can be a major PITA, especially as security rules and cabin luggage restrictions continue to tighten. Another nice thing about IFE is that is gives me an opportunity to watch a lot of programming that I would have otherwise never watched or never even known about. Sure I have dozens of movies on my tablet, but I have already seen them all. I have Netflix, but I always watch the same things over. And relying on in-flight wifi for 200+ people streaming video to their devices is a guaranteed recipe for disaster.

    When you are captive and have limited options, it forces you to expand your horizons, which is usually a good thing. In the event that they do not have anything worth watching, I always have 60 gb of music on my phone.

  9. RichJTW

    October 11, 2019 at 6:59 am

    On short haul I don’t mind losing screens but on long haul please leave in place!!!

  10. 2stepbay

    October 11, 2019 at 9:42 am

    I agree. Ditch the screens. However, provided better wifi reception, better search and viewing functions in the entertainment package, in-seat outlet for each seat, and for heaven’s sake, refresh movie selections much more often. I’m amazed how some movies are still part of the entertainment system 6 months from when they were first introduced! For frequent flyers the available movie library can start to look pretty dated after just 2 months.

  11. c1ue

    October 11, 2019 at 9:58 am

    The title to this article is a bit clickbait.
    The airlines aren’t talking about ending entertainment – they’re talking about ending installed screens to view entertainment.
    This is more than a little bit “let them eat cake”; there are still people who don’t use smartphones, tablets or laptops.
    However, the biggest issue I have with BYO-screen is: not all airlines have charging ports. No charging port means BYO-screen also requires BYO-extra lithium battery.
    And aren’t those not good on planes, in general?

  12. RedeyeDog

    October 11, 2019 at 10:22 am

    All most people need these days, is safe, reliable and free WiFi. Most of the entertainment systems they have these days are canned, lacking current news and programming.

    If they want to charge a nominal fee for WiFi, it should be consistent and easily payable without needing to contact onboard personnel.

    Safe, easy, fun. Who doesn’t have a cell phone or other wifi enabled device, these days?

  13. DCAFly

    October 11, 2019 at 1:06 pm

    Does anyone still read?

  14. picturegal

    October 11, 2019 at 4:22 pm

    I usually read and only occasionally watch the IFE if there is a movie I’d like to watch. But I do like having the in flight map showing where we are in the flight, time to arrival, air speed, etc. In fact, I wish the map were a lot more detailed. I sure don’t want to have to unpack my laptop to do that, and I’m frequently reading my book on my tablet.

  15. Himeno

    October 11, 2019 at 11:11 pm

    I know a lot of people who don’t have smart phones and/or tablets.
    If they are going to get rid of the seat back screens, they might as well go back to the fold down monitors and bulkhead projector.

    The main issue with their current “do it all over wifi” thinking is they want you to use their app.
    That assumes people have a device, that the app works on. Power is another issue.
    If they want to go in this direction, don’t require an app. Just require a web browser, of any kind, and a wifi connection.
    Any device that has a wifi connection will have a browser of some sort.

    I like the seat back screens. If there isn’t anything that I want to watch, I’ll be opening the moving map.

  16. dsearls

    October 12, 2019 at 6:38 am

    Indeed, the headline is misleading. Some airlines are moving entertainment from seat backs to apps.

    In my opinion as a many-million-mile flyer (mostly on United), this is a smart move. I especially like replacing (as United is doing) the seat-back screens with clamps that can hold personal devices of every size, from phones to large tablets.

    Their best moves now are to maximize the selection of movies and other entertainment choices, to add USB jacks at ever seat to power passenger devices, and to add AC power at every seat, rather than just ever set of seats.

    By the way, United also still offers “From the flight deck” on some of its surviving seatback display systems, but the choice is hard to find and relatively few pilots turn it on. (In the old Channel 9 days, about half of all pilots turned it on, at least by my own tally.) If the feature is available on the United app (which one needs for watching entertainment on a plane), I haven’t found it yet. But it might be there. Either way, it’s a big loss. That feature was a big United advantage: equally appealing to passengers who are pilots (ans there are many, especially in premium seats) and to passengers who fear flying.

  17. robertjw

    October 12, 2019 at 7:18 am

    I wish AA’s device app would work with Kindle Fire. Southwest and United does.

  18. srdshelly

    October 12, 2019 at 6:56 pm

    Personally I don’t want to watch something on a phone for more than a few minutes. I would definitely rather sit back and watch a considerably larger screen. I agree with downinit. I often watch a movie or program I would never have seen otherwise.

  19. Gig103

    October 12, 2019 at 8:03 pm

    It might sound dumb, but Delta gets more of my business and praise for having seatback IFE on domestic flights. It’s a much more comfortable way to watch something (compared to looking down at my phone or tablet), not to mention rotating selection and variety. On flights with meals it’s even more important, but those tend to be international anyway which more or all airlines have IFE equipped.


    October 13, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    I don’t need these screens. I wish they were not there. They have movies that are not suitable for children, which children can’t help seeing when they look around the plane. I have flown dozens of hours in the last year and the only thing I used my screen for was the flight map – and I wasn’t bored. I had plenty to do on my laptop and I had things to read too.

  21. needsun2

    October 14, 2019 at 9:10 pm

    I really agree with c1ue!
    This is more than a little bit “let them eat cake”; there are still people who don’t use smartphones, tablets or laptops.
    husband has button phone. thankful, it is the only think safe these days.
    my phone has frozen, old android.
    I appreciated some of the things i would not usually see on tv, have gotten rid of netflix long ago and amazon and the rest, how do you find time?
    Husband loves just having the seatback screen, it is a treat. we go first class just for it. Alaska, see you later, hello Delta!

  22. EPtraveler

    October 16, 2019 at 10:30 am

    I was in a paid first class seat on AA from PHX-SFO. Luckily, it was a short flight. No seat back entertainment, no power plug for my device which I didn’t want to use anyway. End of a long day and no power at my seat. Unforgivable.
    Also I was on Viasat on an AA transcon flight and now I’m getting so many spam (sex related) emails. They go into my spam folder but still. It was the only time I have been on an unsecured network, as I am 100% on password protected servers. What’s up with that? I was only on Outlook but jeez, what a pain. Coincidence, doesn’t seem like it.

  23. POatParker

    October 21, 2019 at 11:31 am

    According to that idiot, Doug Parker, who claimed AA did a study of key frequent flyers, who said, they prefer to use their own devices! In reality, he didn’t want to spend the money to put them in or maintain them, plus reducing weight. As an Exec Plat, and the numerous other people I discussed this with, not one said they would prefer to use their on device. Who wants to use a 4: screen, when you can have a 12′ screen? Not to mention, wasting my battery power that I need to work, unless of course, I go to the trouble of digging out my cords, etc. Also, it is a hassle to get connected. It is far my convenient to please the customer by continuing to offer the screens! The sooner Parker is gone the better the industry will be!

  24. luvtotravel1

    October 29, 2019 at 6:31 am

    Easy solution. Bring a book. That’s what I do on every flight. No need to worry about power, WiFi, etc.

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