Seatback screens versus bringing your own device?
As airlines emerge from the pandemic, they’re facing major decisions on how much to invest in their inflight product – especially on the longest flights where demand is particularly strong this year.
At least one airline has cast its vote in favor of adding more hardware and advanced technology to its fleet. United Airlines last week announced one of its most significant investments in-flight entertainment, covering up to 300,000 seatback screens to be installed over the next few years. The deal, for Panasonic Avionics’ Astrova product, covers video units of varying sizes, with features like better screen resolution, high fidelity audio, and programmable LED lighting.
“It’ll be one very big airborne movie theater,” Mark Muren, United’s managing director for identity, product, and loyalty, said at a media briefing last week at the Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg, Germany.
The amount of the investment was not disclosed, but a Panasonic official said it is the largest order for inflight entertainment it has ever received from any airline. It also covers an earlier commitment from United to install seatback screens throughout its domestic fleet, which is being refurbished under its “United Next” program. For international service, starting in 2025, United will add the screens on its new Airbus A321XLRs and Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
But only recently, it seemed the industry was moving in the other direction, with carriers ripping out seatback videos, and not only to save expenses and fuel: The thinking was that passengers were increasingly using their own devices onboard and that it made more sense to invest in faster and more reliable WiFi.
“Ten years ago, United thought that it was all going to be about your own device,” Muren said. But he said the customer response showed that passengers missed having a seatback video with canned content, even if they also used their smartphone or tablet to send emails or surf the internet. “They want to use their own device, but also to be engaged and entertained.” He noted that while several years ears ago, United had basically eliminated seatbacks from its narrowbody domestic aircraft, in the next few years, all of its domestic fleet will have them.
The move might seem contrarian at a time when much of the focus in the airlines is on sustainability. Indeed, most low-cost airlines, including startups like Breeze Airways and Avelo, have opted for the DIY approach to inflight entertainment.
But Muren also pointed out that the screens are comparatively light-weight, and will also be easier to maintain and repair.
Other major airlines have differing approaches, ranging from Delta Air Lines, which has consistently favored seatback video screens on most flights, to Southwest Airlines, which, in line with its no-frills business model, has never had any built-in entertainment although it does offer inflight WiFi. American Airlines did remove seatbacks on much of its narrowbody domestic fleet but does offer this option on many widebody jets flying longer international flights. And while Alaska Airlines removed Virgin America’s popular IFE system when it acquired that airline, and is now screen-free, JetBlue is at the opposite end of the spectrum -- offering screens at all seats, with packaged entertainment and live TV -- a feature that set it apart from the industry when the carrier launched 23 years ago.