American Airlines Exec VP Flies United, Discovers Streaming Video Can’t Replace Seat Back Screens

Yesterday I wrote about American Airlines Executive Vice President of People, Communications, and Public Affairs Elise Eberwein flying United in first class. She wrote a trip report on twitter documenting the experience.

She’s a class act and complimented the friendly flight attendants. However she notes:

  • Flight was an hour late (so much for D0)
  • No blankets
  • No predeparture beverage
  • United’s hot towels before meal service are much nicer than American’s

Subsequently she’s shared one more detail about the flight, and I hope she does more than just write about it on twitter. She needs to bring the insight back to the American Airlines management team: the flight had no seat back video and she couldn’t watch United’s streaming inflgiht entertainment.

American Airlines is removing seat back video screens from their domestic fleet as they reconfigure Boeing 737s with the new Project Oasis interior (more seats, less legroom, less recline, less seat padding and smaller lavatories) along with Airbus narrowbodies to follow.

I don’t value airline inflight entertainment but I’m an outlier. I bring my own device and I make sure it’s loaded up with everything I need. Mostly I want to work on the plane, and need internet access, but when I’m too tired to work I’m picky about what I watch and plan ahead.

American’s CEO Doug Parker says delivering plan without seat back video is going for great. American says they’re planning for the future, that seat back screens become outdated (just like TVs at home have, or something?).

While the airline claims 95% of passengers have their own devices, that counts cell phones. Not every family of five owns five iPads. Even when customers have their own devices they largely use seat back video, which is why Delta has invested in them for 600 planes.

Now Elise Eberwein could have downloaded United’s app to watch video prior to doors close. But once you’re up in the air you’re stuck. You cannot download the app without first buying internet, so there’s no access to free entertainment at all. And what if the government imposes an electronics ban as they did for some flights headed to the U.S.?

The suggestion that nothing is lost for passengers when seat back screens are removed is silly. People prefer seat back screens. American doesn’t offer as extensive a library of new content over streaming video. But they’re taking out screens because they’re expensive and the weight burns fuel, not to mention that they incur maintenance cost. It’s about saving money, not passenger experience, and readers tell me over and over that streaming just isn’t the same thing.

By the way just like Ms. Eberwein I’ve had Homeland‘s season 6 downloaded on my laptop for months as well. I enjoyed the first five seasons, but I’m just a couple of episodes into this one and haven’t gotten into it yet.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It also amazes me that airlines don’t get the purpose of IFE: distraction. It means people don’t notice a lack of service, a lack of space, or the length of the journey. They sit in idle joy and peace not noticing all the flaws of the journey, sans fussing with their tablets (which few have), their small phones, or laptops that don’t fit on the table – just as they would in front of a TV. My recent AA flight, a 4 hour haul on their dreary 737, supports this. I will never fly them by choice despite few negative experiences with them.

  2. “American says they’re planning for the future, that seat back screens become outdated (just like TVs at home have, or something?).” Duh.
    Of course just like cabin interiors and everything else on a plane, streaming systems also become outdated, but American is still installing that technology. Companies do themselves no favors when they believe their own bs. A paycheck has a way of eliminating objectivity.

    @Gary, Passengers could become more like you, or they could just fly Delta. In the short run anyway, I think it is an easy choice for most.

  3. I just don’t like to focus my eyes on a little screen for so long at a time. I’d much rather watch something on a seat back screen than on anything smaller.

  4. AA doesn’t require an app to be downloaded to watch the streaming IFE…

    Neither does the paperback i bring.

  5. “American Airlines Exec VP Flies United, Discovers Streaming Video Can’t Replace Seat Back Screens”

    Talk about clickbait. Sigh. Eberwein seems perfectly happy with her own downloaded videos.

    Yes, it would be better to have a screen in front of your coach seat than not have a screen. It would also be better to have a meal, than not have a meal. And better to have 34″ inches of legroom, instead of 31″. And better to have a big lavatory over a small one. And so on. But providing all these things that customers repeatedly have refused to pay for is a bad business decision. Which is why your constant harping on the same stuff that AA will not be providing for free to customers is silly.

  6. @Chopsticks – So how does Delta make it work and why are they generating more revenue than AA?

    Luckily, I will be flying Delta from now on so I won’t have to worry about the lack of screens on AA.

  7. When IFE streaming systems are app-dependent then those apps should be downloaded before the flight, rather than depending on connectivity. But better yet, the streaming system need not be app-dependent. HTML5, browser-based, MPEG-DASH systems do not require an app, so passengers can stream content that is available to the airline many months earlier than the content you can download at home for yourself. The capacity of the onboard server gives you a far greater choice of content than that you downloaded at home. All systems should not be judged by the limitations of any single system because they aren’t the same.

  8. It should be noted that installed IFE screens are subject to different certification requirements by the FAA. While you can replace your personal device every year or so, it takes years to amortize the cost of embedded systems that may cost as much as $14,000 per seat, and hundreds of thousands of dollars to retrofit an aircraft. So your own PED may be generations of technology newer. The comparative volume of content available via any system is a function of the size of the server the airline is willing to install, and that volume may have more to do without the content costs than to server size. BYOD streaming systems can provide terabytes of content.

  9. If an AA flight is 2.5 hours or less than all these cuts may be endurable. But this makes me think of a business not making money and cuts services figuring that it will help the bottom line. Those cuts usually never work.

  10. @ Former AA Flyer — DL has the same small lavs as AA — in fact, they pioneered them (something many readers of this blog are probably unaware of). They have about the same legroom, and a lack of free meals. They do think screens are more valuable than AA does. AA thinks new airplanes are more valuable than DL. AA thinks owning a money-losing oil refinery is a bad idea and DL is stuck with one. So not everyone agrees on everything. But I can assure you that DL’s revenue premium to AA has nothing to do with “screens” — they’ve had the same revenue premium before the airlines parted ways on screens, and it’s mostly attributable to their route network and less ULCC competition. AA will lose zero revenue due to its approach to IFE and Gary can write about it 1000 times (I think we’re up to 100) and it won’t change anything. That’s because AA’s decision is based on math, and Gary’s view is based on emotion.

  11. @chopsticks – AA is already losing MY revenue because of AA’s various anti-customer changes, including the removal of IFE screens. I can’t be the only one. Nice try.

  12. @JohnB — The world has changed. Every traveler has a phone, a tablet or a computer with them. Most have two. The ones they don’t have this stuff are unlikely to know which airlines have “screens” and which don’t — much less make airline purchases decisions based on this. You don’t need to have the same heavy, expensive and difficult to maintain built-in IFE on an aircraft in 2018 that you had 20 years ago. I’m pretty sure that the educated public’s opinion of who has the best domestic IFE isn’t going to be dependent on who has built-in screens. Ease of access to the streaming service, speed and content will win. Folks can live in the past, or they can live in the present and see the future.

  13. AA concierge key to delta diamond… will never turn back to AA. Delta has been an all-round better experience.

  14. @Chopsticks (likely DUI Doug in disguise) – I have a smartphone, tablet, and laptop and still vastly prefer the screens. I don’t like to travel with all my devices when I can help it, and I like being able to watch something on the screen and do some work or use the internet at the same time. What would a streaming app do for me or any other passenger? If you have to use your own device anyway (especially if you have to download some kind of app), why not just download whatever you want to watch beforehand? Not to mention that the newest onboard internet services supposedly allow streaming from Netflix, etc. I see no reason why a sophisticated traveler would care at all about a stupid streaming app provided by an airline, or how these apps will not become completely obsolete as in-flight internet capabilities continue to improve.

    And as far as the past vs. future, why are many airlines racing to debut the latest, most advanced IFE screens and systems, especially on widebodies, but also on narrowbodies in the case of DL and JetBlue? This “future” stuff is all a cop out. AA clearly is losing some revenue because of this and other anti-customer moves. Dougie and team simply think that it won’t be enough to make added costs worth it. We will see.

    Luckily I’m not required to fly AA as AA continues to try to emulate ULCC’s.

    @Return – why would I want to watch anything on my phone when I can fly Delta (or JetBlue) and use a nice-sized screen? What if I want to multitask?

  15. @Jim @Grant @DaveS @ECh @John @JohnB – I agree. I will no longer fly AA unless it’s completely unavoidable, despite it usually being far more convenient.

    @Michael Childers – No doubt these systems can be expensive. Delta’s new system is far cheaper and is perfect because it allows them to offer the service at much lower cost. Yet DUI Doug refuses to even consider spending that much.

    Regardless, as a customer, it’s not my job to care how expensive it is for a business to offer a product or service. I can judge whether I like a product or service at a certain price point and choose accordingly. It’s the business’s job to find the right mix between product/service, costs, and price. AA is attracting less revenue (at least proportionately) for whatever reason. If AA thinks offering a lesser product is the road to higher profits, then that’s fine. But luckily those of us who don’t like the product aren’t required to give AA our money.

  16. Hey Gary, writing additional comments here only to be helpful. I carry my own technology with me everywhere so I don’t have to rely on the hotel, airplane, etc. to have content I want to view. I bought the internet service on UA but even then couldn’t get the app downloaded. Admittedly, I wasn’t too concerned because I always have content to watch, music to listen to, etc.

    This will prove unpopular but will say it anyway, I support the IFE direction AA has moved to because the airlines can’t keep up with the technology companies in terms of hardware or software. By the time we retrofit 650 airplanes, the technology advancements in quality will have far surpassed any old Ted Danson sitcom we can provide, not to mention the affordability of technology today and in the future (lower cost versions abound). If we stay on top of the Wifi capabilities, and invest there which is what we are doing, it feels like the right investment.

    On a lighter note, Homeland was never the same (spoiler alert!) once they took Brody away. I’m going to push through it though because I want Carrie to win! But I forgot I also had the final season of House of Cards so I could have watched that…would have been way better!

    I’m with you on being agnostic about IFE. That said, many of the commenters here noted it is simply a distraction for people and I agree. You can definitely tell the difference in vibe when every human has a screen in front of them (there’s people inside a talking box!) vs one where they have to entertain themselves with their own device, a book, or conversation with their seat mate. Maybe that’s a statement about the state of our society though too huh. We can’t stand for 2 min in any line anywhere without our device and the distraction of reading text msgs or news headlines.

    I sound like Grandma…sorry! PS ask my husband about my new line every time we eat out: “maybe we should just split something…” I’m told that’s a classic sign I am aging. Yikes!

  17. @Elise thank you for your comment and perspective, I hope you will keep sharing your trip reports with us! I did think it was notable that you flagged lack of predeparture beverages on United and difficulty accessing their streaming entertainment. These are two challenges customers frequently note with American, which is why I hoped it would be a constructive experience.

    Delta does seem to have a decent IFE solution going forward, streaming wirelessly to seat back screens. It may be tough to keep up with technology but what most customers bring on board doesn’t yet come close to the experience of seat back screens. And American isn’t licensing comparable content for streaming in any case.

    So while I don’t rely on IFE myself, I’m the outlier and it still does appear to be an area that matters to customers and one in which AA is falling behind, intentionally.

  18. Is there also high speed charging available per seat for the personal devices we are supposed to be using instead?

  19. Since the only time I watch movies is on airplanes, I guess this is one of the perks to being a DL hub captive. ATL to anywhere is measured in # of movies for me. (For you young people, that hashtag also stands for both “number” and “pounds.”)

  20. I take some long flights . I really enjoy movies and travel progress info on seatback screens . If I try reading while flying I get motion sickness . For shorter flights (maybe 5-6 hours) I don’t care but for 10-12 hours I look forward to the movie selection .

  21. Amet said what I was thinking: in my experience, seats with working power supply are few and far between, and those are underpowered, at best.

  22. Personally I kinda like life without the seat-back IFE. So many folks conflate “touch-screen” with “full tricep extension poke-screen”.

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