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They’re expensive, out-of-date, and redundant in a world where everyone’s flying with a laptop.

Airlines Are Tossing Seat-Back Screens. Here Is Why That’s A Great Design Move
[Airline Seats: Paul Prescott via Shutterstock]

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.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.