I Don’t Get Inflight Entertainment. Why Does It Matter?

American Airlines sent out a press release this morning that I found rather confusing. It begins,

American Airlines is putting entertainment options in the hands of more customers by launching its streaming video service on more than 200 additional aircraft in its domestic mainline fleet.

They go on to talk about ‘seat-back video’ and ‘streaming’ together. American isn’t going to add seat back video to their fleet of MD80s with early generation gogo internet, those planes are on the way out. American’s new A319s and A321s come equipped with seat back video already. The new 737s entering the fleet do as well.

Here’s the new American interior standard for domestic narrowbodies:

The press release gets even more confusing, talking about not just streaming and seat back but even throwing in overhead entertainment.

    Best I can tell what they’re really saying in the release is that legacy US Airways Airbus A319, A320, and A321 aircraft will get streaming video.

In 2012 I relayed CEO Doug Parker’s comments on inflight entertainment,

He also noted that putting movies on airplanes makes no sense anymore, since everyone has their own entertainment. He could see streaming it to individuals’ players, but not installing equipment at each seat.

For once I actually agree with Doug Parker. I don’t get it.

  • I have my own device. And I bring my own entertainment.

  • It’s unlikely that American will curate entertainment I’m more likely to watch than what I preload myself. Serendipity is great but it rarely seems to offer superior alternatives.

  • What are the 6 free movies they’re offering to stream through June 30? Big Hero 6, Captain America, Frozen, Guardians of the Galaxy, Into The Woods, Maleficent.

They’re installing streaming video, which makes some sense compared to expensive boxes at each seat. But even then I’m not clear on the value add.

I’m interested in what readers think here because with all of the investment that airlines make in video on demand, they’re clearly seeing something that I do not.

Airlines have limited resources to invest in inflight experience. Entertainment options are at the very bottom of my list.

What I want is the timetable to install Main Cabin Extra seating in legacy US Airways aircraft. The US Airways inflight product is weak and I do my best to avoid it on all but the shortest flights.

I may get upgraded as an Executive Platinum member, but if I don’t they do not offer extra legroom coach seating. (Their first class seat pitch is reminiscent of old Northwest DC9s, but it’s better than coach.)

Much more important than inflight entertainment is:

Does inflight entertainment matter? How come?

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 only ever take my phone if I can help it, so if I have headphones, any entertainment is better than nothing!

  2. Curious to read others’ thoughts. I bring my own entertainment, in the form of a laptop for work or a Kindle for pleasure. I’ve never checked to see what entertainment options are onboard before buying or boarding a flight.

    That said, whenever free movies are available, I always peruse the options and often watch them. Why? For starters, they don’t pull power from my other devices. I usually want to conserve battery for more important functions and sometimes I want to conserve my brainpower as well 😉 Secondly, I wouldn’t know what to download without putting in “research” before my trip. Airlines save me the trouble of reading synopses or reviews and if it ends up being terrible, at least I’m not out time or money.

  3. I much prefer the seat back screens over my own personal device as it allows me to watch something during the meal service, or act as background noise if I have my laptop open on my tray table. Also, I like having the map open even if I am not watching any of the movies or shows on offer. I haven’t seen maps on the streaming options, and Continental’s LiveTV system doesn’t even have a moving map unless you are willing to pay for it, which I find ridiculous.

  4. You mention that it is unlikely AA will curate entertainment that you will like more than what you would bring anyway.

    That’s been my argument about food all along. How does an airline know what I want to eat that day? Airports typically have more than three options (# options on many flights). Why not just pick your own grub and bring it on board?

  5. I don’t need it for domestic flights but I’m not willing to pay to download anything to my tablet and I never go to the movies so I definitely want IFE provided on long haul flights. I’ll provide the games but I expect the airline to provide the movies and the power ports.

  6. It’s not something an EXP who knows how to play AA’s elite scheme like a Stradivarius is going to relate to, but if you’re routinely rammed into 30-31 inch pitch on 10-across Y or 737s, you probably would like something to distract you from being shoehorned into cramped spaces.

    Emirates ICE is probably the best example of that; rotten pitch, but nice IFE, even in Y. If there’s no more free panem, at least there’s circenses.

  7. @eponymous coward I guess I wouldn’t understand not preparing with your own IFE if you’re going to be rammed into 30-31 inch pitch on a 10-across Y.

  8. @mark you’d be surprised how many terminals are barren. and how long the lines are / how much time it can take to get food in the airport. so for folks making a quick connection, and not arriving at the airport really early, onboard food matters more than entertainment which can be downloaded at any time.

  9. AA doesnt want to spend the money to maintain the screens/IFE. Of course (we all) have laptops, tablets etc. Many of the IFE screen suck anyway. I look and many people do watch the IFE screens. I prefer when available and no cost to stream to my IPAD from the the airline or my own content. A really good item is the Seagate wirless hard drive. You can put a ton of your own movies on there and stream to your ipad/laptop etc. The only issue is that is another thing for you to carry in your bag. You can stream to more than one person on your own personal wireless network.

  10. its interesting you think quality food is so important but quality entertainment isn’t. As someone who travels every week, I much rather have Live TV or a program in the background while I’m working than a mediocre meal. I can bring on board a far better quality meal and eat at my leasure much easier than having to buy my own movies or TV shows. I agree internet is most important and Power is up there (though my laptop is good for 6-7 hours so it really isn’t an issue).

    Further, there is nothing better travelling on a fall Sunday or evening flight and not missing out on NFL or whatever is playing that night. The marginal benefit of being able to watch, say the NFC Championship game, is far greater than any meal I’ve ever had on a domestic flight.

  11. There are a couple reasons I like inflight entertainment. A lot of times they (seem to) have movies that aren’t in theaters anymore but aren’t available to rent/purchase (I watched two of the Hobbit movies and Guardians of the Galaxy in these time frames). I’m 6’1″ so a lot of times it’s cramped in economy for me. It’s hard getting a good angle on the tray table, hard to have a drink and a device, and worse if someone reclines back. Finally, and this seems to happen to me enough that I should be prepared for it by now, you sometimes run out of things to watch. I always find myself having exhausted my choices by the time I’m flying back home. Of course more IFE is pretty weak, almost to the point you ask why they even bother (Why do they include some random season of a TV show? ). I always try to bring enough media on my devices expecting that I’ll find nothing to watch.

    I agree with Lea though, I don’t really need it for domestic.

  12. I like IFE, especially on international. I am a freeloader in this regard, as I should specify I love free IFE. I am perfectly fine having IFE streamed to my ipad. But, there are far more options available on most flights (Especially international) than I could ever hope to have downloaded onto my own device.

    Options are good. My last flight from ORD-AUH, obviously a really long one, I had several movies and TV shows available on my device. I ended up watching only movies available offered by the airline’s IFE system. I view my ipad kind of as a backup plan. The IFE will have movies that I would have otherwise never thought to download or possibly had never heard of.

  13. I think they would be best served doing what Jet blue just did and started a partnership with Amazon Prime. Being able to use a netflix, hulu, prime or other service that most people now have would be best option for airlines.

  14. Personally, I do not have a laptop or tablet. It’s something extra to carry and avoid breaking during transit. Plus, it’s less convenient than IFE when someone has reclined in the seat in front of you. Therefore I always use IFE on an aircraft when it is available. If I see during the booking process that a long-haul flight isn’t going to have IFE, then I look for another carrier.

    Although many loathe Southwest, on the few flights I have taken with them they have featured free streaming TV for mobile devices. The only drawback to that is there is no charging area. If AA transitioned into a streaming service, which I would oppose, at least they have the charging area to make it work.

  15. I generally agree with what Becky says. The thing is as I see it, most frequent flyers have seen most of the movies they’re showing, especially when there’s only as much choice as the legacy US carriers have. BA, SQ, etc have more options which I find makes it more useful, but even that I’d burnt through the list of watchable stuff after a few R/T’s to Europe.. Where the IFE provides a value add is for the non-FF”s. If you’re stuck in the back with no elite status, no MCE, can’t sleep on planes unless in a lie flat seat and didn’t pack your own form of entertainment, it’s a really really long flight without any IFE. Even the movie Serendipity will seem like a gift from the airline gods on even a 3 hour flight.

  16. Love in flight video, loading entertainment is pricey, don’t need in flight wi fihave plent to work on already in my inbox.

    Not everyone has an iPad.

  17. On short-haul, maybe even medium, I don’t much care, as I’d rather nap or work.

    On long-haul, I want IFE. I slightly prefer seat-back screens, as they allow me to keep watching a movie during meal service, and put up the table if I want to nap or stretch out. I like DL’s streaming Delta Studio too as sometimes my iPad is a nicer screen than some of the older IFE DL has. The new IFE in 738/739 aircraft and refurbished wide-bodies are nice.

    If there will be streaming solution, then AA had better get in-seat power on all those aircraft too since using our own devices will require recharging them as well.

    My other reasons for preferring IFE, other than no extra cost to me to purchase/rent from iTunes and such, is that airlines typically get newer movies that are still, or just out of, theaters. Having just a few rotating on the overhead screens is useless.

  18. I agree with most others I like the IFE there are usually recently released movies I would like to see but never did in the theater. How do people download these new movies to their device anyway? It can’t be free, right?

  19. Fly US Air ways on a transcontinental flight and you’ll quickly notice why IFE matters.

    To expand on the point, IFE is a value add. Saying “I have my own, tablet, device, whatever, so I don’t need IFE” is a cop-out. Not all of us want to spend time and money trying to plan out how we will entertain ourselves on upcoming flights because there will be no IFE provided by the airline. Emphasis on the TIME factor. With as much time that many of us spend on aircraft you of all people Gary should appreciate the fact that it would be an annoyance to waste time purchasing and downloading entertainment to plan ahead.

    For the occasional traveler it’s not so much of an issue, but I like knowing that there will be SOMETHING to keep me occupied and pass the time on my upcoming flights, without having to shell out more money for wifi or wasting my time downloading entertainment ahead of time.

    So brAAvo to AA on this one!

  20. Even though I have my own devices. I almost never use them on long haul flight. I always go with the IFE. I could see going with a streaming option as a replacement but I would still want one or the other.

  21. I carry a phone and often a laptop, but no tablet. I don’t really have the time to download 20 hours of entertainment to a device in any event. On an eight hour daytime TATL flight I am definitely happy to have the airline’s IFE system.

  22. I love the IFE and I prefer a seat back screen. Since getting the iPhone 6plus I no longer travel with an iPad and I can’t load content onto my work laptop. Plus, as pointed above, watching on a device or laptop is sub optimal in economy. (Our policy is economy domestic business overseas)

    Most often I am on Qantas and I really like their selection of Asian food and travel docos. They give me great ideas for trips. Most recently Hiroshima for Okkonomiyaki, Taiwan for Beef Noodles and cycling in Japan. The plane is also a good place for catching up on Asian movies I wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.

  23. Cause most of the people who have money are the older type care about those things. Sure, since they have money, they probably have fancy things like tablets (iPad, iPhone, etc) but as a person that supports many wealthy people, they can’t figure out how to even operate simple iPad apps simply cause they don’t have to.

    I have a feeling that IFEs will be around until the younger generation gets old.

  24. When I fly I always have a phone, a kindle, and a tablet with plenty of content on each. You never know when the IFE isn’t going to work and I’d rather not be stuck with nothing to do.

    Here’s how I look at IFE: Its expensive and big and heavy, and you’re going to have to replace it in 5-10 years. It’s got to be cheaper, easier, and lighter for them to just buy iPads and hand them out to everybody on the flight and stream to them instead.

  25. Also, and this doesn’t really apply in the states, but the Qantas economy dinner is reliably edible (couscous and preserved lemon salad on Tuesday). I often take a dinner time flight. Quick snack in the lounge, dinner on the plane. Seat back TV is definitely an important part of that.

    The old 767s where they offered IFE through iPads never worked that well. The streaming wasn’t reliable and the slot on the back of the seat in front left the iPad flapping.

    I’d love live TV, that would be a nice addition.

  26. “I guess I wouldn’t understand not preparing with your own IFE if you’re going to be rammed into 30-31 inch pitch on a 10-across Y.”

    Because a couple of good movies is going to be 5-6 gigs of storage or so (maybe more). You can’t exactly stream them on GoGo. Unless you’re carrying around a terabyte drive full of video you’re unlikely to beat what Emirates ICE has on offer.

  27. I will say that streaming is likely to become more and more popular- IFE is weight to lug around on airplanes, the more weight you can get rid of…

  28. Streaming IFE, copuled with power at every seat is where it’s at.

    No under-seat boxes taking up MUCH needed real-estate in Y, cheaper for the airline, and less likely to go out of date. Looking at the seat-back IFE on my last UA 737 flight and comparing it to my last flight in Y on AA’s 321 is a great example of how quickly seat-back IFE can seem outdated and lose its luster. Streaming IFE is so much easier to manage, and if its like WN’s streaming IFE, it’s superior to most seat-back IFE i’ve used domestically.

    As others have noted, the argument that Food is more important than IFE because you can download what you want to your ipad in advance, the same can be said of food. Your argument that people who arrive late to the airport should still get good food, but those who don’t want to bother downloading video well in advance of their flight don’t deserve video is hypocritical.

    If I’m in F and already have good IFE, sure food matters to me most, and I wouldn’t want to deal with wifi-based IFE. But if I’m in Y and don’t have food OR IFE, then streaming IFE in conjunction with power at every seat gets pretty high up my list.

  29. I agree with you, Gary. I bring my own entertainment. I’d FAR rather airlines would invest in comfortable seats, larger overhead bins, and better food than in entertainment systems.

  30. I’m definitely in the pro-IFE camp. While I almost always have a movie on my tablet during travel just in case (along with a lot of music, some games, and a book), I’ll absolutely take advantage of IFE for the same reasons as noted in many previous comments. I won’t repeat them here but I think they make a good case for why “everyone has their own entertainment” is just flat out wrong.

    One point no one has brought up is that IFE used to be expected. A lot of casual travelers probably figure any flights of reasonable length will at least have music and shared screens. The assumption that everyone will be able to check the amenities of their aircraft, have a tablet, and be able to download sufficient content to keep them busy on a flight every time is absurd. People have different financial situations, may not be savvy/experienced travelers, etc. Sometimes, to put it plainly, sh*t happens and the press of business (or social endeavors) get in the way and you forget to charge your device, download content, or leave devices/chargers behind.

  31. I think we’ll have to part company on this issue Gary. I want a large seatback screen with new release movies!

  32. Gary– can you please write a post with an honest assessment of inflight meals on American? Do you choose to eat when flying AA first class?

  33. For me, IFE is essential. I hardly watch TV shows or movies other than in planes; I just don’t have the time. A couple times a week, I’ll watch something online (e.g. Amazing Race). I never download or purchase entertainment. It would be overwhelming (and annoying) for me to have to take the time in advance of a flight to figure out what I want to watch, and how much I need. I appreciate the more limited onboard selection that is “curated”. While admittedly the selections aren’t always the best, I’ve often come across really interesting and enjoyable things I’d never have experienced without IFE.

  34. @Ethan – Most of the time I skip the meal on American domestic, since the September 1 meal changes. I’m looking forward to trying the new entree salads that started May 1 though.

  35. I very rarely use the airlines IFE – as they rarely have anything I really want to watch – last time was a few episodes of fawlty towers on Thai. oh and the godfather on lufthansa 1st. I carry a 2 TB portable HD which has pretty much everything I would want to see (apart from perhaps current news and sports) and a macbook pro retina – nice screen. I really wish they would do away with those screens, particularly in economy/e+ class.

  36. The best IFE are those that offer some sort of live Tv. Usually will watch sports even for purchase on them.

    As for movies/tv shows unless it’s a 4/5+ hour flight where I get bored I usually don’t bother with it.

  37. Hollywood releases films to the in-flight market before they’re available for a reasonable price online. Sure, it’s useless to only have the option of six streaming family flicks. But a comprehensive video library, featuring scores of new movies and entire seasons of TV shows (as, for example, AA has on its A321s) can make the difference between a grueling flight and a pleasant one.

    I can neither predict in advance whether I’ll want to watch Veep, Dirty Harry, The Sopranos, Girls or Casablanca, nor can I afford to download them all onto my iPad before I fly.

  38. Onboard IFE – especially seatback video – is a particular value-add when traveling with a large family. IFE makes much easier the process of traveling with children, and it is not always possible to have a device: 1) for every child; 2) loaded with age-appropriate entertainment options; 3) secured so that the user doesn’t wreak havoc using other functions; 4) fully charged and available. Seatback IFE enables us as parents to have the entertainment with more convenience, while easily seeing what our children are watching. And, importantly, with fewer concerns about damage from dirty hands, spilled beverages, and drops, and no worries about devices being left behind on aircraft.

  39. I want a FULL movie selection on long haul international with built in monitors and noise cancelling headphones. This would also be good on longer domestic planes. I don’t need anything on short haul domestic but it would be nice if I could stream stuff to my ipad or phone on 2+ hour flights. Power in the seat and internet is more needed but with current technology it won’t support a plane full of Netflix users. Maybe they could run a promo with someone like iTunes or Amazon where you could download a free movie prior to the flights on domestic. You book a flight and get a free code from one service or the other for some free download content. They could even host this with some ads in the content or something like that to gain revenue or make this revenue neutral.

  40. How about they put any form of entertainment from the last 20 years into their long haul boeing 767; which still have old overhead projection screens that you can’t see or hear. I get stuck on flights I’m booked through work from Frankfurt to Dallas (11 hours) with no entertainment! This is what they need to work on!

  41. If you’re traveling with children, individual seat entertainment makes a huge difference. No battery drain. One child can watch one screen and the other can watch something else on the other–no fighting. A godsend on long flights.

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