Doug Parker: We Think Eliminating Seat Back Entertainment Is ‘Going for Great’

At a Crew News update last week a Dallas-based flight attendant asked American Airlines CEO Doug Parker about seat back entertainment. She said she’s noticed that most passengers really appreciate inflight entertainment “with the TV’s” and she wanted to understand why American wouldn’t install seat back tv’s going forward?

She says that passengers “don’t even remember their headphones” yet alone their own entertainment devices. Customers prefer it, flight attendants prefer it, why wouldn’t they offer it? (“Why are we going in that direction if we’re Going for Great?”)

Parker explained that new planes are being delivered without seat back screens is in part financial, they’re expensive to buy. (In the past he’s complained about their weight and fuel burn.) He said that inflight entertainment systems “don’t work a lot, which gets people upset” and walked that back to say they don’t work sometimes, emphasizing the maintenance issues and the space that seat back screens take up.

He says “the transition’s going to be really difficult” acknowledging that today customers aren’t all ready for planes without entertainment devices. Just ask the family of four that doesn’t own four iPads and has to share.

Parker emphasizes American’s new planes are being delivered with satellite wifi “as opposed to the gogo wifi, so right now that gogo thing is shooting down to the ground to a cell tower just like your phone does, there’s not enough bandwidth for more than 5 or 6 people using it at once.”

He suggests people “could stream Netflix live” and it’s true that the technology allows it, but American’s service definitely isn’t allowing that much bandwidth for an individual user in my experience at this point.

Claiming it’s better not to have seat back screens, he closes saying that he thinks delivering planes without them “is Going for Great.”

Seat back entertainment actually doesn’t matter to me, I’ve written that many times and readers push back every time. When I fly I work, so I bring a laptop. And I don’t want to rely on an airline to entertain me, so it’s stocked with things I actually want to watch for when I’m too tired to work.

I do wonder whether y’all will come around and become more like me, if simply streaming to your own device is the future as Parker says?

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. The problem with streaming entertainment using an hand held device boils down to this:

    1.) “babysitting” or holding, securing, propping up the device throughout the flight. Thus far, on every flight I’ve taken that’s been aboard a circa 1975 Vintage seatback IFE-less cabin, the device used be it a cell phone or a tablet slips, falls, shifts, and takes up space on the tray table ifmone wants to work…not to mention becomes even more problematic during any kind of beverage or snack/meal service) they even tend to shift and quickly fall to the floor if the device is placed in one’s lap.

    Simply put, after a while it’s a nuisance;

    2.) as noted by others, what if there’s only one device for more than one person? In fact, how many young children have their own devices (or cell phones at all) that can be used by everyone at the same time?

    3.) what about battery longevity if there’s no outlet available, or as Gary notes, the available outlet is unusuable due to poor maintenance? Also, what’s the protocol for aircraft where there are more seats than outlets per row (for example, three seats/two outlets)?

    4.) crappy programming (United) and very limited selection (Southwest)

    Those are among the drawbacks for streaming to one’s own device in mine and my partner’s experience. He flies often enough, too, to matter. Frequent transcons, plus other places near and far. He has eight flights scheduled between now and early March, six of which I’ll be on.

    Both of us are exerienced, savvy flyers whom have flown hither and yon.

    And while neither of us are full-on road warriors, both of us combined have flown enough over the past two years aboard aircraft with and without seatback IFE on a wide variety of airlines (AeroMexico, Aeroflot, Air Berlin, Delta, Jetblue, Southwest, United and Vueling) and there’s NO COMPARISON between the quality of the entertainment options, or the overall entertainment “experience” between a dedicated seatback IFE type of programming, and streaming to one’s own handheld device.


    In fact, except for an upcoming trip with his boss that I did not book as I otherwise usually do, the standing instructions are no flights on airlines that don’t offer seatback IFE on the flights he wants to be on whenever possible.

    He hates using his cell phone or laptop computer to stream entertainment while flying.


    After our last five flights over the past two months (United twice, Southwest twice, Jetblue once) where we found ourselves aboard 737-800s on United that still had DirecTV both times (versus earlier this year when we were stuck on UA 737s without it), Jetblue with its AWESOME free live satellite tv, and Southwest with its streaming IFE, I agree with him.

    One method is much better, and offers an overall, far superior experience, while the other is cheap and tacky.

    Just like Rent A Wreck and Enterprise both rent cars. Except one is much better than the other.

    Or Motel 6 and the Peninsula both sell hotel rooms. Except one is much, much better than the other!

  2. I like seat back entertainment. What about planes with no screens and no power? I’m not draining my battery watching on my phone and then ending up with a dead phone upon landing. It’s like taking away economy meals because “no one liked them.” A bullshit excuse for cost-cutting cheapness.

  3. I just five points:

    (1) “Parker emphasizes American’s new planes are being delivered with satellite wifi”. How much is Parker going to charge for this?

    (2) I thought the original argument was, well they are removing pitch and width, but they are giving you a better experience with IFI and power at every seat.

    (3) Ok, so I am stuck in the window seat. My book, Ipad, and my PC are in the overhead. See the problem. Now, I would probable just turn on the IFI rather than bothering everyone.

    (4) If everyone has there Ipad out, how many Ipads are going to be lost. Whoa, another revenue source, selling Ipads left on plane. Bingo. Just joking, But I find the best way to not leave stuff on the plane is to keep it packed almost all the time.

    (5) I am willing to bet they will start removing IFI from long haul as well, once people get used to not having it in short haul.

    (6) He is basically saying, I am going to force this worse experience down your throat and you are GOING to like it.

  4. He is so out of touch without reality. We have been platinum members for 10 years, and now looking at Delta.

  5. After 30 years and Platinum for Life, i’m finished with American Airlines. I’ve flushed them down the toilet. Now i only fly Alaska and Jet Blue.

  6. They still provide inflight entertainment (streaming) on these aircraft, and much of the existing fleet retains seat back screens. So not that doesn’t seem to explain it.

  7. Then he cries when the MEB3, who all have seatback IFE and an extensive library of entertainment, take his pax away. Given the US Air / AM West background though no big surprise. Its going to be economy food on BA all over again and once his pax start walking he will have to do an even more expensive retrofit.

  8. Norwegian, We’ve had it with British Airways, we will be using Norwegian Airlines going forward. Their Premium Economy on long haul flights looks just great. I have read many of the Gary article on reward credit cards. I just need to check if Norwegian will accept Chase Sapphire Points.

  9. I personally would rather have an adjustable seat back mount for my own device. But then I’m a tech head.

    I expect most people prefer the IFE. That may change eventually but, for now, it’s rather anti-customer to be removing them.

  10. i really dislike watching entertainment longer than a video of 1-2 minutes on my phone…..and hate watching movies on my phone. I don’t travel with a tablet and you can’t watch a movie on your laptop and eat anything at the same time. It’s pure BS the spin these airlines are putting on this…..Delta gives customers the choice to consume entertainment as they wish which is true “going for great”

  11. One other observation: While Parker changes his rationale from time to time re: no seat-back screens for IFE, one of the key explanations is weight — it weighs a lot to have IFE screens on every seat back (or within each armrest, depending upon row and close of service). Another of his explanations seems to be, “Well, everyone is bringing their tablet onboard anyways, so . . . ”

    While I have no doubt that IFE systems *do* weigh a sizable amount, and less weight equals more fuel efficiency (were it only that easy) . . . first of all, NOT everyone has their own tablet. Some people do not own one, period. It’s as simple as that. For instance, I do not. I do, however, own a notebook computer. A notebook weighs more that a tablet, but I have yet to figure out a rational reason — for ME! — to own both. Some people own NEITHER a tablet or a notebook. (In that case, they’re f****d!)

    Hypothetically, what if every passenger *does* bring a notebook onboard. What if everyone checks a bag, puts the “world’s heaviest” carry-on in the overhead, *and* brings on a notebook?

    Yes, I know the max take-off weight will (probably) still exceed the actual weight of passengers + luggage + carry-ons + notebooks. But my point remains the same: what if every single passenger brings onboard a notebook — all 187 passengers aboard an A321 (v3), or all 160 passengers aboard a 737-800 (v2), compared with the number of notebooks (or tablets) if an IFE system was in place? How much weight is Doug actually saving?

  12. Gary, I’m rarely in agreement with you, but in this case I am. As a frequent United flyer now I show up with my iPad charged and either stream content or watch Netflix. The vast majority of planes I am on have a place to hang or clip my iPad.

    To this FA and all the naysayers – take a United flight and see how many people use it and you’ll understand why this is the future.

  13. This one is pretty easy:

    Fix the on-board streaming options and for God’s sake, give me some in-seat power! Most people aren’t *reading* on these flights!

  14. @Gary —> in re: : your comment to iahphx that “Infrequent customers generally choose on price…”

    Generally speaking, within the blogosphere, and in the “Points & Miles” community, there exists a certain degree of myopia. This is NOT the fault of the blogger him- or herself, nor is it the fault of we individuals who participate in this crazy and occasionally mind-numbing hobby. No, it is the fault of Human Nature: sooner or later, everyone within a group begins to perceive EVERYONE is IN the group — everyone in the entire world, I mean. Why? Because we are all “preaching to the converted.” Individually, we may possess varying degrees of knowledge and experience within the subject matter, but we all presume that everyone else knows what we’re referring to when we attempt to show how “in” we are by using abbreviations like IRROPS, WN, PE, B6, or Y, J, and F — or in this case, IFE.

    My point here is that you say “infrequent customers generally choose on price . . .” Well, so too do frequent flyers. Not only may Flyer A already have elite status on multiple airlines (let alone already qualified for lifetime status), and will therefore choose between (e.g.) American, Delta, United, etc. based upon price (and flight schedule), but even if Flyer B has FF status on __________ Airways, the rest of his family may not — and if you’re buying tickets for 4-5 people, REGARDLESS of status, you’re looking for deal! Also, it is my firm belief — based upon what I’ve seen at airports and experienced in conversations with friends and family — that not everyone, including frequent fliers (versus true road warriors) are members or a loyalty program . . . for any number of reasons: it’s too complicated, too much of a hassle — whatever! This is true even with something as simple and basic as Rapid Rewards. I mean, not everyone is willing to take a mileage run, or thinks about what credit card will give them the largest bonus on signup/best point return on spend.

    Additionally, not everyone owns a tablet, and not everyone remembers to bring it . . . as has already been pointed out.

  15. As one flight attendant once said….”the passenger is our enemy”………( yes, she got fired)

  16. For long flights, hell any flight, the idea of not having a screen in the seat in front of me is terrifying. I DO need to be amused by movies! All the arguments set forth previously apply about the inability to relax while trying to balance and juggle a separate device, not to mention the cables needed or trying to eat, or even more fundamentally, trying to SEE a movie on a smart phone. Now American Airlines is requiring me to purchase and carry devices I don’t want? I was recently on an American flight to Uruguay, over 9 hours. I was given a filthy tablet, that didn’t work, it was eventually changed out. American is not my default airline and I forgot about this ridiculous lack of screen. I will certainly do anything I can to avoid American. This is a radical and customer insulting policy. New leadership is required at the top.

  17. I just returned from Portugal on an AA flight. I was prepared with a fully charged tablet and a mostly charged phone.

    The flight attendant told me that there was a charging port beneath the seat if I needed it. I reached down under the seat and found a 12V port just like in a car. I may have been the only one on the plane who had a 12V charger, only because we had rented a car while traveling.

    The previous flight I took had USB in the seat. What will they do for the next “Gotcha!” The least they could do is pass out the 12V chargers, but not likely.

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