American’s President Was Asked About Lack Of Seat Back Video. Here’s What He Said.

During the question and answer portion of Thursday’s American Airlines earnings call, Wall Street Journal reporter Alison Sider asked about the airline’s removal of seat back entertainment screens from its domestic aircraft, and whether they have any regrets?

Delta Air Lines is considered the most premium of the large U.S. carriers, despite not offering dedicated business class lounges or as valuable a frequent flyer program. They committed heavily to seat back entertainment, with newer technology that’s less costly so they stream content to each seat rather than hardwiring the plane.

United Airlines in the last month announced that it would retrofit its domestic fleet to offer screens at each seat as well. That will leave American Airlines as the only one of the 3 global U.S. carriers without screens on its domestic planes.

American has actively removed screens, even from planes that had them, as they installed their new domestic ‘Oasis’ interior – cramming more seats into planes, reducing the number of extra legroom seats, reducing padding at each seat, while also offering high speed internet and larger overhead bins.

Airline President Robert Isom dodged the question on regrets, saying instead that he “want[s] to focus on what we’ve got” which is already acquiring new aircraft, while others are “talking” about what they “might do” (referring to United’s June order of 270 new planes, the first of which has already been delivered).

Isom offers,

  • they were the first to have high speed wifi (I don’t think that’s really a fair distinction, though Delta found Gogo’s 2Ku system wasn’t as robust as hoped)

  • they will be “getting back into live entertainment as well” which they pulled early in the pandemic as a cost-saving measure, arguing that there was no live sports, but hasn’t yet been brought back. An airline spokesperson tells me “we don’t have a timeline” for when this will return.

  • customers don’t need seat back screens since “90% of customers bring their own devices” and that these have better screens than seats do – but I’m not sure a cell phone really is the same thing for many.

  • and seat back entertainment is bad for the environment and eliminating them enhances “sustainability” since planes without screens are lighter and more fuel efficient. He doesn’t speak to how their adding seats to aircraft, also discussed during the call, increases weight and fuel burn (unless offset by fewer flights) and Airbus 321ceos are even weight restricted on several routes so they’re carrying seats and burning fuel without even carrying passengers.

In the opening prepared remarks section of the call, Isom said they’ve brought back an operation the size of the old US Airways in just a few months at American, which perhaps shows his frame of reference.

If American does find itself forced to reconsider seat back entertainment, something that was under discussion prior to the pandemic but ultimately rejected, the claim that this is bad for the environment becomes an awkward one to walk back.

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 continually amazes me that these people still have jobs. I guess if they still have them now, there isn’t any momentum for them to ever lose them.

  2. While I don’t use in-flight entertainment (there is something called “books”) I get what he’s saying. But then it doesn’t take much talent to smell B.S. when it’s shoveled at you.

  3. Let’s inject an ounce of practicality, please. Airlines the size of American can’t just “snap their corporate fingers” and instantly replace thousands of seats overnight. The seats, bins, lighting, wiring, etc. for the Oasis/Kodiak projects were purchased a number of years ago. I love the way critics lambaste American for being in debt up to its eyeballs in one sentence, then say it should spend billions of dollars it allegedly doesn’t have to put television sets on its airplanes immediately, if not sooner. You can’t have it both ways. I also find it more than interesting to note the paucity of criticism directed at Alaska and Hawaiian, who, based on the pictures I’ve seen in their investor presentations, apparently have the same device holders on their aircraft as American. Interestingly, Alaska reported a higher profit today than Southwest – which, last time I checked, also doesn’t have in-seat TVs. Hmmm ……

  4. Should have asked him why rewards redemption rates have skyrocketed. More expensive to go CLT-BUFFALO than internationally. Caribbean rates are insane.

  5. I should also mention that Alaska and Southwest reported significantly higher profits today than United, Delta, and American. Again … Hmmm …

  6. I get that there are many people who find embedded seatback IFE obsolete in an era of BYOD.

    But, I can also state with absolute certainty that there are many people, even those with top of the line hand held devices, who still prefer the ease & convenience of embedded seatback IFE, & who will book Delta (or JetBlue) whenever possible instead of American or United – myself & my partner included!

  7. You don’t have to be pro-seatback to be pro-IFE. Alaska doesn’t catch flack because they specifically offer iPads on the flight (I want to say there’s a modest charge, but it’s been a while!). You can walk onto an AS flight with nothing but your wallet and still stay entertained with films, TV, music, etc.

    AA does NOT offer iPads inflight. They also don’t innovate. Literally, I cannot think of a single thing they’ve done before anyone else; it’s all just “copy DL/UA”. I think the combination is probably what gets them an enormous amount of criticism, and the only part that continually surprises me is that the board hasn’t replaced management, because they ARE continually underperforming compared to their contemporaries at DL and even UA.

  8. As a matter of practicality, seat-back video only makes sense on longer flights. As such, seat-back video only makes sense on wide-bodies, T-birds, and some Neos. Criticism of no seat-back video on narrow-body aircraft on short-haul routes is misplaced. As for wide-bodies and T-birds, we’re really talking about main cabin seats.

    The fact is that some prefer their own devices and other prefer seat-back video. AA has made a business decision regarding this — Delta, Southwest, United, etc. have also made a business decision regarding this. With other decisions, AA will be lauded and the others will be criticized. Each traveler has to assesses the whole package based on one’s own preferences. If seat-back video is an important factor to a given traveler, knowing the situation with AA, that person has choice to make.

    So, make a choice and move on with life. Let’s not have blogs and comments go the route of Spirit.

  9. Radio,
    Delta managed to post the best profit of the big 3 on a GAAP basis. AS and WN don’t fly longhaul international flights and I am pretty sure you know that so I wouldn’t expect their finances to reflect the drag from the lack of longhaul travel.
    Seatback AVOD doesn’t make or break an airline experience or airline profits. It is simply part of the package that Delta offers to be a more premium experience and the biggest part of that is that they run a far more reliable operation, fewer cancellations and better on-time. That isn’t my opinion but what the DOT and flight tracking sites say.
    And people argue against the need to put in seatback AVOD completely miss the point that airlines like DL and B6 that have it offer CHOICES – you can use your own device and stream their content on your device or display it on your own device.
    When 80% of people on domestic flights use AVOD, it is something that some people see value in, even if it is the flight tracker or watching sports or news with no sound while doing something else.
    Of course AA can’t snap its fingers and change anything now. The whole AVOD discussion has been going on for years. And United, which wasn’t interested in it before, IS spending enormously to change course; they just are attaching that AVOD to tens of billions of new aircraft in volumes that no other US airline needs to buy to accomplish their strategic objectives.

  10. Most of American’s service cuts frustrate me, but I’m with Parker on seatback AVOD. For domestic and short-haul international, good wifi is infinitely more important to most travelers who choose their carrier on anything other than price. For frequent travelers, the content isn’t updated nearly as much, so the ability to stream live TV or a paid subscription service is much more useful than seatback content that you’ve see a thousand times over. And for $49.95 a month, I’m nearly as productive in the air as I am on the ground. Who watches TV at 2:30 on a Wednesday anyway?

    I think long haul is a different story, especially in premium cabins. I don’t believe I’m alone in being someone who rarely watches a movie lying down unless they have a glass of champagne in hand and are at FL350 over a body of water.

  11. Howard Miller +1

    American’s argument that seat-back IFE isn’t necessary because people have smartphones and tablets is laughable. American simply doesn’t offer a competitive product.

    I watched all of Game 2 of Bucks @ Suns NBA Finals LIVE on a Delta seat-back TV and it was further confirmation Delta is superior.

  12. FYI – AS removed the inflight players/tablets a while back – permanently.

    “In order to minimize contact between guests and crew, we’ve permanently removed inflight entertainment tablet rentals onboard.”

  13. @Tim Dunn,
    Alaska and Southwest, airlines without in-seat TV, beat American, Delta, and United’s earnings by a pretty wide margin. Alaska earned almost as much as Southwest in sheer dollars, even though it’s much smaller. Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, etc., none of which have in-seat TVs, also tend to have higher overall margins overall than your beloved Delta. Don’t get me wrong. Delta’s a great airline, and does most of what it does extremely well. I’ve flown it often and have had nothing but good service. But it’s not perfect, as you and its other over-the-top fans allege.

    Please show me proof that 80% of all airline passengers in the country use AVOD. You may be right, but you offered no concrete evidence to back up your claim.

    If this pandemic had occurred in 2008, how many major airlines would be in Chapter 11 proceedings? I’m guessing most of them. It’s a tribute to the entire industry, even airlines like Southwest with no in-seat entertainment, that there have been no Chapter 11 filings in the U.S.

    Airline interiors need to be refurbished every few years. If you listened to American’s earnings call this morning, you might recall that Isom quietly mentioned that American is continuing to evaluate its options. It won’t surprise me to see a change in American’s stance regarding built-in entertainment at some point. But, as a practical matter, the new seats, bins, electrical wiring, power outlets, etc. have already been purchased. Most of Delta’s planes don’t have the game-changing tablet-based AVOD system Delta’s A220s have. Even Delta, the “perfect” airline, can’t “snap its corporate fingers” and change out almost 800 aircraft interiors overnight.

    I’m happy to see all of the airlines report improved results. That’s because, unlike you and Mr. Leff, I don’t want to see any airline go belly up.

  14. While I am Plat Pro with them can can’t imagine flying AA domestically (shudder).

  15. Radio
    seatback AVOD has nothing to do with the difference in profitability between domestic only airlines and the global 3 = but if you want to somehow pretend that having large portions of your global route systems closed doesn’t matter, then cling to that notion.
    Of course what you are really trying to argue is that seatback AVOD doesn’t matter.
    Delta is about as analytical as any US airline; they clearly decided a long time ago that it is worth it. They have had a consistent high single digit percent revenue advantage on a system basis and double digit on the domestic system.
    There is a reason why United is changing its mind and spending tens of billions to replace regional jets with mainline aircraft – that have AVOD.
    Of course AA – and you – want to hedge their bets and say ‘never say never’ – but it will take years to undo their decisions even if they make the decision to add AVOD tomorrow.

    And AVOD is the least of American’s problems. Gary may be in an American heavy city but he does manage to find a disproportionate amount of “junk” about American. It can’t all be made up.

  16. @Tim Dunn,
    I’m merely pointing out facts, as you say you do. I never wrote that the current quarter is an indication of the future. The overarching point of my response to you was echoed in your first sentence, “(S)eatback AVOD has nothing to do with the difference in profitability between domestic only airlines and the global 3.”

    I could be wrong, but I think the people who care most about seatback AVOD are people on airline blogs who hate American so much they want it to be liquidated. The vast majority of travelers buy airline tickets because of price, price, and price. Most of the others buy based on schedule and convenience. That’s why ULCCs are the fastest-growing airline segment worldwide, and legacies are slowly shrinking in overall share.

    In my opinion (which I hope is wrong) Gary finds a disproportionate amount of “junk” about American is because he has a vendetta against it. Other airlines have issues, too. But Gary largely ignores or glosses over them. He’s not the first person in the media who has let his hate get in the way of being objective. One of the prime ways the media slant the news is to apply a double standard to their coverage – highlight the bad about the “other” and make excuses for the same behavior when it happens at the group for whom they shill.

    Delta is Delta. United is United. American is American. Southwest is Southwest. What’s so terrible about that?

  17. Screens on flights with games, entertainment pacify children and nuisance passengers. Especially on long hauls. It is worth the money.

  18. Enough with the screens. Have been on a lot of flight with and without them in my life and it’s not a deciding factor (Plus the last flight I was on a few weeks ago with screen, most people were using their devices. . .LOL). Yes for trans- Atlantic or Pacific I love them and AA is keeping them, they will be on their excellent Transcon plans, all widebodies and I will bet on their XLRs in a few years. But domestically, their content and streaming options, especially with live TV back are great. 99.9% of the IFE are crap, you can’t used bluetooth headsets and the boxes take up a lot of underseat space. Also, the seat are way thick and once someone reclines, you can’t see the darn things. AA’s, AK, and SW approach makes great sense to me. It saves money, fuel, reduces carbon and a LOT of us do prefer our own device. Give me strong WiFi, a device holder (which I LOVE) and a USB port and I am good to go. I do miss the live TV, but now that is coming back I am set and ready to return to the skys for business and continued pleasure flying with AA.

    DL, UAand B7 can deal with them, I personally don’t like them and other are in my court as well.

  19. Radio,
    please consider the very real possibility that you are indeed wrong.
    Speaking honestly and critically about a company does not equate to wanting to see it liquidated.

    It is a company, not your mother.

  20. I have come to accept American isn’t in the same league as United and Delta. I consider American’s true competitors to be Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant.

  21. @Tim,

    If you had read my last post carefully (which you apparently didn’t), you would have realized I do consider the very real possibility that I could be wrong. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been wrong in my 72 years on the planet, I’d make Richard Branson look like a pauper.

    To illustrate, I copied this excerpt, “I could be wrong, but I think the people who care most about seatback AVOD are people on airline blogs who hate American so much they want it to be liquidated.” Please note the first four words of the sentence.

    Later in the same post, I wrote the following, “In my opinion (which I hope is wrong) Gary finds a disproportionate amount of “junk” about American is because he has a vendetta against it. Please note the parenthetical comment.

    I focused on in-seat television because that was the topic of Gary’s piece and Isom’s response to the question. Comments on these blogs tend to stray from the topic quite frequently. To conclude, honest criticism is laudable. An attitude of gloating and lording it over others isn’t. But again, I re-ask the question: Why does every legacy airline have to be exactly like Delta?

  22. The quality of America has gone downhill and getting worse by the day. The board needs to get a new ceo who can bring this company back to it’s stardards there were once known for. The CEO continues to downgrade it own company and being so cheap about staffing and making the paying clients suffer due to his incompetence running the company. I have been flying with AA since 1988 and watch this airline fail every year since Crandel left his post.

  23. In his prepared remarks he somewhat misspoke…”brought back an operation the size of old USAirways…who is he trying to kid–that have brought back the entire MESS USAir was and ruined the in the process destroyed the American brand!!

  24. To all of you who said “I don’t care if there is a screen or not”, I agree. Especially on most short haul/domestic it really is not necessary. I am flying (mostly) up and down the east coast, and the most my flight takes is 1.5 to 2 hours. I do not need to watch a movie on these trips. Someone flying from Boston to CLT, RDU to ATL, ATL to NYC: is your ADHD so bad that you need a screen to be entertained? Especially when you can stream it onto your device of choice if needed?
    I agree it is a little different for long haul – perhaps – but even there I can totally live with the streaming option.
    I would very much appreciate space in economy that would allow me to open a laptop and do work. I would love free wifi so I can be in a connected office in the sky. THAT would make me switch airlines, but even then cost and convenience will be a bigger factor in my choice than the ability to watch reruns of Friends on a seat back screen.

  25. My expectation is when I purchase a business class ticket there should be in flught entertainment without using my device. Not so from Muami to Quito. Embarassing for you and I will probably fly Delta, United or COPA. Lots of other choices.

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