Airlines Are Tossing Seat-Back Screens. Here Is Why That's A Great Design Move

They're expensive, out-of-date, and redundant in a world where everyone's flying with a laptop.

Grab some extra magazines, frequent flyers. The seat-back entertainment screen may be going the way of economy-class legroom. Rather than installing TV screens in seats, airlines are moving toward offering the same content via Wi-Fi. Airlines like Delta, US Airways, American Airlines, and United have begun investing in in-flight entertainment options that stream straight to personal devices. If you want to watch a movie on Hawaiian Airlines or the French airliner OpenSkies, you can rent a tablet on board. Some of the latest-generation Boeing 737-900 planes flown by United have done away with seat-back screens altogether.

At first, this seems like just another step in the worldwide airline conspiracy to slowly strip passengers of all of their comforts until they go mad and sell their firstborn child for two hours in a first class seat. First, they came for our complimentary drinks and snacks. Next, our legroom. Then, our free carry-on luggage. Now, it's BYOTV?!

In truth, removing seat-back entertainment is smart design that can benefit both passengers and the airline. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Cost

They may not look like luxury technology, but because of the safety engineering that has to go into every part of a plane, the average in-flight entertainment screen can cost as much as $10,000. To outfit an entire plane typically costs around $3 million dollars.

via Flickr user Fiona Bradley

2. Weight

In-flight entertainment screens can weigh up to 13 pounds per seat. Most people already bring a laptop or tablet with them on the plane, so by getting rid of the redundant seat-back entertainment option, the airline can save not only on the initial costs of installation, but also on the fuel costs associated with dragging the weight of a bunch of extra screens into the sky. Getting rid of screens on a 260-seat Boeing 767 could conserve 80 metric tons of fuel per year, an airline IT provider told the Wall Street Journal.

3. Viewing Experience

Because seat-back screens are so expensive, they don't get updated very often. "You have to be two years ahead," an Emirates Airline executive said of in-flight entertainment systems in USA Today. There's no way an airline can afford to update them as regularly as newer, better technology comes along--as anyone who's been stuck jabbing at the dimly lit touch screen in vain can attest. Your iPad or laptop probably has a higher-resolution screen and better viewing experience. Plus, on red-eye flights where people are trying to sleep, personal devices are less intrusive. You don't have to worry about bright screens facing empty seats in front of you keeping you awake.

Other than the fact that you're responsible for powering your own device, it's a win-win. (Some planes currently offer outlets near seats anyway.) Cash-strapped airlines save money on equipment and fuel, and passengers can get a better entertainment experience. Perhaps the only real con? Your tablet doesn't have to be delethalized--engineered to prevent it from exploding in flames/impaling you--like that seat-back screen.

[Airline Seats: Paul Prescott via Shutterstock]

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49 Comments

  • YES...Great article about what is truly happening. Check www.ScreenSuspenders.com We are launching this great new product in less than 30 days. Holds ANY tablet...ANYWHERE.

  • Less is more, for whom???? Yep. Less for passengers. I think the only thing left that can be taken away is the restroom. That will probably require a special upgrade in the future. Flying today is just unpleasant.

    And btw: Flying First Class within the United States is a joke these days. Many flights are flown by Regional Jets that offer a cabin worse than some economy cabins of other airlines...and none of them have a IFE installed. The one exception is Jetblue, an Economy only LCC.

  • jonusb

    While I can agree with others here that the notion of every passenger carrying a laptop (or even a tablet) on the plane is ludicrous, at least you can agree that nearly everyone has a Smartphone by now. If these airlines really wanted to appease the same passengers after getting rid of the seat-back screens, OFFER FREE WI-FI FOR THE DURATION OF THE FLIGHT. Period. That's it. This article is rather obscure when it suggests "offering the same content via Wi-Fi".

  • Ali Green

    'Everyone's flying with a laptop' - yeah, rich business people in first class. But the rest of us? Who takes (and pays to insure) a laptop on holiday??

  • Laptops are disposable now. Heck, insure a laptop on a holiday - never have done that, and it's not necessary.

  • These arguements only make senses if the airline pass the saving back to the passenger. But I doubt that is ever going to happen. In fact, I suspect they will charge more with the whatever extra "legroom" they get out of uninstalling these screens.

  • This is dumb. The airline can easily do all that by simply installing a tablet to the back of the seat instead of the tv. Not everyone jas a tablet/laptop with them, not everyone wants to hold a tablet in their hands and stare down at it for two hours to watch a movie.

  • jgalt43

    Stupid move. Most frequent flyers in the cheap seats do NOT have laptops. I travel from the Philippines to the US at least once a year, and only a few passengers use/have laptops. Ditto for the city-to-city hops I make when I am there. Twelve plus hour trips would get tiring if you have to balance a lap top on your lap or on those slippery shelves. Not to mention, that the screens and movies entertain the kids on those long hops. Keeop cutting and you will also cut your number of passengers.

  • Ryan Long

    I think this is a wise move, but what are you supposed to do when you eat (queue the jokes about airline food or the lack thereof)? Seriously though, whether the airline provides a meal, you buy onboard, or pick up something in the terminal, it could be tough to watch anything on a tablet and almost impossible to watch something on a laptop. Those coach tray tables are pretty small. It would be tough even in first class.

  • bxastbhcfdaa

    So, how much did this shill piece from the airlines cost? They're not doing it for the noble reasons you list. This is just another excuse to nickel-and-dime passengers. At the rate things are going, the seat will cost extra!

  • I would disagree. I flown regularly for the last 10 years and only ever used the in-seat display for the 20 minutes when the FAA banned portable electronics during take-off and landing. Now that I can use my phone, ipad, laptop whenever I want, the screens are truly redundant.

  • There is a flight safety angle to this: Having hard laptops in everybody's stomachs creates an impact injury problem as well as an exit time catastrophe. As a result they are never going to permit this at scale other than between ascent and descent. They would need to go back to large cabin screens for the safety announcements and passengers would have to put up with the entertainment beginning in flight.

  • I pitched this to BA a few years ago. Ours involved a little more of a system for those who haven't bought into the tablet market yet.

  • I'm a professional traveler. I'm also built like a linebacker. On some flights I am forced to fly coach because extended legroom if booked. In coach, I can't bring the tray down, much less use a laptop or tablet. It's seat back entertainment or boredom for me. Until consumers decide not to take it any more, seats will keep shrinking and benefits disappearing.

  • I think the takeaway here is that the next generation of seatback entertainment needs to be cheaper and lighter, which I would have thought was inevitable. To some extent though the high price (And need to make something chunky to account for it) stems from the expensive testing, regulatory, installation and sales processes not the needs of the device functionality itself. The idea that 400+ passengers are going to stream video over the plane's internet connection instead is laughable. Neither are the crew going to be supporting 400+ people configuring a connection to an onboard server for use from their laptops. Airlines may cut the screens as the low budget airlines within Europe have done, but it's a simple reduction of service for reduced fare, tradeoff when choosing your airline.

  • you're right. the aircraft can only stream for 100 pax's at one time. So where does that leave the other 300? in an aircraft that does not offer outlets to recharge your tablet? ugly...

  • The intent isn't to stream the movies over the Internet connection, you would connect your laptop to a captive portal (the same thing you see when you get the login screen) and would be streaming the content directly from a media server somewhere on the plane.

    The attendants becoming tech support for everyone's tablet that can't connect to the WiFi connection does introduce challenges. Hopefully they think through those issues before they make the switch.

  • As you say the connection to the ground isn't the best solution and they would use a local media server of some kind. The challenges people having connecting to Wi-Fi for just web browsing in a cafe illustrates it being a support issue. Particularly with most travelers only occasionally using a specific aircraft type and airline and as a result not being familiar with it. Trying their netflix or amazon prime etc. Also when it comes to that many users and video streaming Wi-Fi isn't really as robust as would be needed. It's the internet cafe or lecture hall type situation where the Wi-Fi works as long as zero to one people are streaming and only five people open their laptops. The Wi-Fi itself becomes an issue not just the backhaul. Building something which works at all for a range of differently configured laptops in the density of a wide bodied aircraft is going to require numerous repeated antenna arrays and be very difficult to manage.