How to Completely Miss the Point of Airline Seat Back Entertainment

The Points Guy ran a love letter to American Airlines a piece by Carissa Rawson laying out the case why it’s good for airlines to get rid of seat back entertainment.

  • Legroom is better than inflight entertainment “airlines often store inflight entertainment (IFE) systems in boxes located under seats, in that space also known as your legroom.”

  • Personal devices are more advanced the high capital cost means that “screens are quickly outdated, they’re there for years — unresponsive and slow and a pain to operate.”

  • The tradeoff is faster wifi, sometimes even for free is where airlines are forced to go when they cut seat back screens.

Each of these points is wrong.

Rawson acknowledges that “airlines will simply add more rows of seats as they move to lighter, slimmer seats (without IFE), but at least I can stick my feet under the seat.” Indeed American’s new standard domestic configuration with no seat back entertainment also squeezes the distance from seat back to seat back (pitch) down to 30 inches. Their original plan included some seats at 29 inches. And part of how they justify it is extra space at eye level where the screen used to go.

However it is no longer necessary to trade off under seat room to have seat back screens. Delta’s new innovation is wireless seat back tablets. Those are about a third the cost to install and don’t take up passenger space.

And the idea that airlines only put in faster wifi when they take away screens is belied by the fact that Delta offers both high speed satellite and has over 700 aircraft with seat back screens, and that JetBlue was first in the U.S. to make wifi free and also known for the seat back televisions.

The problems with taking away seat back entertainment are many.

  • Cell phone batteries don’t last very long. The “basket of deplorables” US Airways fleet, which lacks screens, has been slow to get power – indeed we’re at least two years away from American Airlines Airbus A320s from offering seat power. And what happens when seat power on American doesn’t work because of lack of proactive maintenance for the power ports? Miami – Seattle or Dallas – Anchorage is a long way to fly with no entertainment at all.

  • Not all families have one device per person. A family of four may not have four iPads, and while adults may have video-capable phones their kids may not.

  • Seat back screens are larger than phones and offer a more enjoyable viewing experience. You don’t need to keep your tray table down or jury-rig a device to the seat back ahead. Moreover the seat back screens simply give the cabin a more technology-forward feel. Brand new planes without screens look old and outdated to customers. The airline may have spent $35 million on a new aircraft, but fails to capture the customer satisfaction by saving $350,000 not outfitting the plane with wireless screens.

What’s more, streaming content has its problems. Customers may be required to watch through the carrier’s app, but aren’t always clearly told to download it until it’s too late in the air. Airlines haven’t always invested in the same up to date content for streaming as seat back (I’m looking at you, American). And what happens if the U.S. government brings back an electronics ban?

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. I 100% use seat back entertainment when it is available but 0% use my own device. I just read a magazine instead. My phone battery would last about 30 minutes into a show and rarely is there power available when there isn’t IFE available. I’m a pretty frequent flyer (about 100 flights/year) and still get excited when I get on a plane that has IFE, which is pretty rare flying out of a mid-sized non-hub airport.

  2. I may be in the minority, but as someone who never uses the in-flight entertainment, I’d rather they go away even with no space savings. The screens are hard to ignore and constantly irksome (you can’t get them to shut down and stay off pre-wheels up, and even inflight they like to turn on unprompted); they add a lot of harsh ambient brightness to otherwise dark cabins; and the views of your neighbors’ screens are often far more distracting / bright than the equivalent annoyance from them using their own tablet or phone would be.

  3. Gary – this topics is very important to you and you have commented numerous times on AA eliminating IFE and DL adding it. While some of the argument about blocking under seat space may not be true anymore, I tend to fall on the side of the writer of the TPG story.

    Frankly, I never understood why people was so damn fascinated with seat back entertainment. Main thing I use it for is the map. I travel with a laptop and IPhone X so can use wifi to access any of the inflight entertainment (AA mainly). As the article noted AA has greatly improved their wifi and I haven’t had problems with buffering or other similar such issues for a very long time. Understand it is FREE to access entertainment on board so don’t give me the “I don’t want to pay for wifi” line. Also, I download programs from Netflix so I can watch them if I want plus always travel with my Kindle.

    For someone like me this isn’t a big issue and the access to IFE or lack thereof really doesn’t make one bit of difference to me. Everyone doesn’t share your opinion so PLEASE don’t come off as so self-righteous that any opinion on this other than yours has to be wrong!

  4. Agree with you Gary 100%.

    The issue with some people not caring about and being happy with watching full length movies on their phone is that they think k everyone should do the same. Just because something works for one person doesn’t mean it works for all. By all means they could always use their own phone even if the screen is available. By they seem insistent on making that decision for everyone.

  5. Another + that was overlooked by TPG was no IFE = no TAP TAP TAP all flight long on the back of your head. Rid the skies of the inflight woodpeckers tapping the back of your seat!!!

  6. Amazing to me that it took so long before the airlines (well 1 of them at least) discovered you can provision cheap Android tablets into kiosk mode with a custom app and show streaming content. Matter of fact, when this is done, the hardware is SO INEXPENSIVE that the real crime scene is the royalties for the content that must be paid.

    So AA might as well grow up, go to and load up on Android tablets and BE A LEADER or at least a close follower.

  7. I hate lack of seat back screens.
    1. My cell phone battery has a short life and overuse makes it worse.
    2. My Amazon Fire tablet doesn’t download the viewer to watch movies

  8. A classic case of “the needs of the many out way the needs of the few”. Take it which way you want to.

  9. I’m in the minority. I value power but not seat back IFE. That said, American’s arguments would be better if 1) they were faster about providing power in every plane; 2) they maintained the power outlets so they actually worked; and 3) they offered free wifi.

    But I sure do wish that the streaming IFE contained a map.

  10. Gary is 100% correct.

    The passengers who support removing the IFE are those who bring and use their tablets everywhere. They are inconsiderate and selfish because they want to impose their lifestyle on everyone else and want everyone to waste money on buying a tablet and bringing it on the plane and lug it around for the rest of their trips.
    I have a tablet for home use and never bring it with me when I travel.
    What about for people who don’t own tablets? Are they supposed spend money to buy one?
    What about families traveling with kids? Are they supposed to buy and bring tablets for each child?
    The arguments for not having IFE have so many other flaws that I won’t bother mentioning.

  11. I’m surprised someone from the TPG was able to write an article about a topic that wasn’t a new First class cabin, or 5 star luxury hotel and what credit card they used to get there.

  12. Point that you love DL and everything AA does is wrong. But only DL and JetBlue have gone all in on seatback screens. I fly both DL and AA. I always have a tablet, phone and laptop with me (as do a lot of people). I hate the DL system. Not a huge selection, have to use weird headsets or crappy ear buds and programing is limited. Plus, often the screen sucks and the box does take up a lot of storage and legroom.

    AA’s new streaming system with my device is better IMO. More programs, live TV is awesome for sports, can use my wireless, noise cancelling Bose headphones and with the power and tablet holders equipped planes (more and more are coming), it is a vastly improved experience. So I don’t get the map. . .I do get time to destination which is pretty much all I need. Hope AA updates the wifi and screen on there international fleet. . .that brings value, not on my domestic flight.

    I think in 5 years, DL investment will be fools gold.

  13. I am so fed up with BYOD. Works very poorly, and it shows just out of touch AA management is with their clientele with their “let them eat cake” attitude.
    TPG sucking up to the airlines

  14. The one point they kind of get right is that screens sit in the jets for years and can’t keep pace with upgrades in technology. I have flown on planes this year where the IFE screen was worse than my four year old tablet (either not bright enough or the resolution sucked. I don’t expect miracles from IFE units but there is a threshold that airlines should not fall below and too many older IFE units do fall below it).

    However that’s not a reason to junk the IFE…it’s a reason for airlines to pick a better screen.

    And one point they don’t address…because it hurts their argument…there’s not enough power outlets to if every passenger choose to stream. Furthermore USB ports were never designed with airlines in mind when they came up with the spec and they have a tendency to go bad on planes a lot faster than they do elsewhere.

  15. I don’t care a whole lot. The ads and announcements breaking into anything you try to watch are annoying. I keep my seatbelt buckled and I’ve seen the safety video a gazillion times. I prefer using my own device. But what I really care about is the quality of the wifi. And I wish they could figure out how to make that stay on gate-too-gate.

  16. I’m 100% for them to find another way to support power to seats without infringing on the small spaces with that god awful metal power box. IFE is nice on long hauls. I tend to watch the flight map more than anything on domestic flights. Its nice to see the geography of what and where you are flying over. The streaming service does not offer the map on AA to my knowledge.

    The AA seat back thing is silly. Go buy iPads or some other tablet for the seat backs so they’re cheap to maintain or replace.

  17. @sunviking82

    What are you talking about? Not having a screen doesn’t increase content. And you can use regular (or your overpriced Bose NC) headphones on DL’s system. And the new ones don’t take up space under the seat. Yo got just about everything wrong. Finally, don’t you want that 5 year old sitting in back of you to have content to watch instead of kicking your seat?

  18. 100% Agreed.

    I always travel with my Macbook Pro, my Ipad Pro and my Iphone XS but I really prefer using the IFE systems instead and just ignore my devices.

  19. Below are two of the EXACT messages received from my partner when he boarded a flight I booked him on:

    “you did not tell me NO TV! I have nothing to read!!! NO MAGAZINE!! NO NOTHING!!”

    – and –

    “how come Mr “Airline” forgot to give me this info…so i could have at least ask you for something to read!!”

    I figured that because we’ve flown Delta between NYC and RDU so many times over the years that he’d have known that the rinky dinky RJs Delta uses for its NYC-RDU flights (especially those awful CRJ-700s & 900s) lack seat-back IFE, but guess not and those were the messages I received while I was waiting at JFK to board my flight later that afternoon to Mexico City.

    I know there’s some who believe otherwise, but virtually everyone I know – and book flights for – expects seat-back IFE when they fly.

    As do I.

    Streaming to one’s own device is hardly the same – and often such a hassle & nuisance it’s not worth bothering.

    Kinda like the difference between a hamburger from one of the fast food joints with clowns for their mascots versus Shake Shack – they’re both hamburgers, but at least for me, I’ll happily take the burger from Shake Shack over the places where the clowns are!

  20. Very well said on all counts! AA’s management is so unbelievably stupid and out of touch, it beggars belief.

  21. Reasonable people can disagree on this topic (especially since NO ONE will ever be able to quantify any actual revenue DL gains by having screens), but your continued repetition of the canard that “not all families have one device per person” is silly. Sure, it’s technically true — and especially true if we’re talking about families from sub-Saharan Africa. But for a USA airline — even an airline like Spirit that has a higher proportion of lower income travellers — it is not true. Almost every kid who flies in America has a phone. Just like they have a coat and enough to eat.

  22. usb-c phones require more power than the usb plug on planes puts out (using a usb to usb-c cable), so they don’t even charge. i think the 110ac plug is able to put out enough, though.

  23. AA knows how to hand out tablets. I flew MAN to PHL in J last week. It was an older configuration, a 767 with a 1 2 1 business class cabin, fully lie flat seats, more than nice, if a bit dated. I noticed the lack of seat back screens, as did my wife. I travel with a Surface Pro and a 2 TB drive with hundreds of movies. My wife does not. I sometimes take the headphones if they are better than mine (the B&O on offer was, and I did). When the FAs trundled out a trolley of tablets, my wife lit up. I booted up my Surface, plugged in the B&Os, and watched “House of Flying Daggers”. My wife watched stuff on the AA tablet then switched to a Kindle. A decent flight, good booze, edible food, and a friendly cadre of long serving FAs.

    My take, install easily swappable devices and make them available to all. I know, it takes aeons to validate and safety check new parts, but that should be a rolling process. Something for everyone, if not for me. The majority of my fellow passengers, including my J cabin neighbors, do not come to the party with a device and content. The AA app is fiddly and demands too many permissions, I won’t have it. Let them see video. Figure it out, the wrong idea is to fly people with no IFE. The right idea should be obvious, the rest is execution.

  24. I read this blog and TPG pretty regularly and that article is very typical of a lot of their stuff: one person’s off the cuff reaction with no research, often based on reading another article.

    Apart from the time Gary meanly mocked a dirt poor drug mule who died a very horrible death when the drugs package in his stomach exploded, this blog is known for actually doing research and offering illuminating insights.

  25. Ok lots of comments here so who are the users. All of these pictures ever show are coach seats with out IFE, never First or Business class. Now who is really in the Coach seats? Not eh business man with his Ipad, laptop, etc . it is the 19 yr old college student going on spring break who does NOT bring his laptop. it is the Senior citizen flying to Florida or Palm Springs who have no idea what a AA App even is, never mind how to download it on their Virgin Mobil phone. It is the Family with 3 toddlers who just want to keep them quite so that old man does not get upset. I do not know about you but my great nieces and nephews 2 3 4 and 6 did not bring their cellphones with them to Disney in September. The 2 yr old can not even keep it in his hand without dropping mom’s cellphone. We do not take our electronics with us when we go abroad so this does not work for us either. On our DFW to PHL trip we could not access anything on the AA app

  26. I actually like not having WiFi on flights. I’d much rather use flying time as an opportunity to unplug and disconnect. More people should do that. No one “needs” to be ‘that’ connected. A couple of hours of downtime is good for the soul and health actually.

    I do personally bring my own iPad and watch my own offline content, not what may (or not often than not) may not work with streaming. I have personally seen the AA inflight streaming work once. For a while. After closing the app and attempting to go back to it, it was dead. Granted that was about 2 years ago but still. Useless system in most cases.

    The seat back entertainment from Delta is awesome. AA’s system on the few planes that have them are awesome as well. Too bad they are killing a functional and very nice product.

    As for out of touch person who wrote that article in TPG – he just took away one more bit of credibility of that site. I give little to no value to TPG anymore. Out of touch and generally not much value.

  27. Wow, the haters our out again on this board. Sorry some of us have an opinion that isn’t yours.

    Keep drinking the DL Kool-Aid and paying more to have that seat back screen. Facts do not lie Gen Xer, Millennials and many others all prefer streaming and using their own devices. Plus, I can use my own wireless noise cancelling headset and not those crap ear bud DL gives you. Better sound and I don’t hear you whining about not being able to work your flip phone.


  28. For every TPG mentality about not caring about IFE, there are folks like me who moved to DL to avoid Project Oasis. At least I fly on paid tickets.

  29. I think not supplying IFE poses more work and problems with the flight crew. If you’re on a 3+ hour flight IFE is a great distraction and people stay engaged with the distraction, relax, watch a movie, read the NYT, etc. If you don’t have IFE then you’re focused on what’s in front of you, the seatback, the hard cushion that’s seemed to have gotten harder and harder over the past few years compared to just 2-3 years ago. You start calling on flight attendants for more soda, water, tea and snack, questions, etc. And we all know how wonderfully helpful the AA cabin crew can be.

    IFE provides the distraction to make the flight be over, before you know it.

  30. I would be on board with IFE systems in economy provided that the DEFAULT setting is for them to go dark in flight (unless otherwise activated by the passenger). Instead I have to watch the same video loop on 8 different screens in my peripheral vision because nobody shuts them off when not using.

    Until that happens I’m firmly anti-IFE.

  31. TPG isn’t anything but a shill for airlines and credit card companies. Their editorial independence is… well… nonexistent.

  32. 110% with you Gary!
    The folks at TPG have gotten so bad that I don’t waste my time anymore. Was once a great site now worse then AA and their credit card pitches

  33. I wish more people would boycott TPG, their pieces are obviously biased. Hence their Marriott story last year. Hopefully soon more people will stop reading their propaganda machine that continue to push chase credit card affiliate links in every story.

  34. Various thoughts and responses to comments.
    1. Just because some prefer PEDs does not mean all do, yet AA justifies the decision by claiming it is what the people want, rather than a cost cutting move.
    2. AA’s ViaSat system is quite good from gate to gate.
    3. If you are in a flight with meal service, it is hard to eat and watch your PED.
    4. Small screens are difficult to watch with any slight turbulence.
    5. AA’s website/app used to show your route. I use IFE for that at times (but in its absence, Flight Radar 24 works fine).
    6. Removing IFE does not make the cabin more comfortable, but quite the opposite.

  35. I continue to be shocked at how important IFE seems to be to people. I haven’t watched a movie on the IFE in the last 15 years (generally, I’m reading books, listening to music/podcasts, or sleeping). Most of the time the selection is 95% garbage anyway, and often (on US carriers, at least) the movies have been edited for content. Even if I were to watch a movie in flight, I would much rather download whatever I wanted to watch onto my device before the flight than try to watch something from their limited selection. Power is the only issue, but it’s becoming much less of a concern between outlets being added in economy and more outlets being available at airports.

    The only thing I kinda miss is the in-flight map, but I’m certainly not willing to pay extra for it.

  36. Completely agree with Gary….AA was on such a good path with new planes, in-seat AVOD, power etc until US Airways took over……it’s such a shame.

    If AA feels like seatback IFE is so “outdated” why are they keeping it on competitive routes like A321T’s and the int’l fleet? Ummmmmm…….

  37. All right, rage on about seat-back entertainment. I know that I am going to lose out on this one. But, frankly, whenever I enter a plane with 200 little glowing screens, I feel even more claustrophobic than among the usual misery of small, crowded seats.
    There is nowhere to turn, nowhere to hide, nowhere to avoid relentless advertising and sell, sell, sell in my face all the time. Brightly lit screens at the other two seats in the row of three, dance, flicker, flash, move, jump, shake, demand my attention relentlessly.
    Life has become more and more about screening out aggressive intrusion. What a way to live.
    You want entertainment? Bring it.
    The hell with IFE. Serve a decent snack.
    By the way, how much planet-destroying rare metals and carbon-based materials is all this fitting and retro-fitting costing the world? You know it isn’t “carbon free.”

  38. As I said earlier, the needs of the few, the IFE downers, outweigh the needs of the many. Delta – take notice

  39. @Sunviking82–

    “Wow, the haters our out again on this board. Sorry some of us have an opinion that isn’t yours.”

    Pot, meet kettle:

    “Keep drinking the DL Kool-Aid and paying more to have that seat back screen. Facts do not lie Gen Xer, Millennials and many others all prefer streaming and using their own devices. Plus, I can use my own wireless noise cancelling headset and not those crap ear bud DL gives you. Better sound and I don’t hear you whining about not being able to work your flip phone.”

    How rude!

    I’m a millennial with a tablet, iPhone, and laptop, and still prefer the screens. 70% of people I see on flights with seatback IFE are using it, more on evening flights. It seems that even MORE millennials and Generation X’ers are using it than older passengers. I am not sure where you get your “facts.” Do you have a study to cite?

    I don’t like to lug all my devices along every time I travel, and like the ability to work on one device and watch something at the same time. Sometimes I also just like to put all my devices away and relax and watch something. It’s nice to not be using my own device.

    Here’s the beauty of offering the screens: those who don’t like them aren’t required to use them. But if none are offered, there is no option for those who do like them.

    Underseat space is a valid complaint with the old boxes, but as you’ve been told ad nauseum, the modern systems now being introduced by DL and others eliminate the boxes.

    I also use my comfortable Bose (yes, wired, but still) headphones with the DL system.

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