No American Airlines 30 Inch Pitch and Bring Your Own Entertainment Isn’t All Passengers Need

I’m not a fan of airline inflight entertainment. I don’t want to rely on the airline to entertain me. I’m picky about what I watch, and what happens if the entertainment system isn’t working?

Since I rarely use the airline’s entertainment, it doesn’t matter to me whether we have seat back screens or not. I only ever use them for the flight map to see where we are, but as long as we have internet I check that out on my laptop anyway.

American’s new standard is no seat back video screens. They provide streaming entertainment you can access on your own device. Brand new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are delivered without the screen. Existing Boeing 737s will get the new seats and have screens removed.

I realize I am not the median passenger. Readers tell me over and over that seat back television screens matter.

  • American Airlines may pay their executives well, and give employees unilateral raises and bonuses, so it’s easy to get trapped in a bubble. The average airline passenger in the U.S. has a six figure income. But American flies to many places where that isn’t true such as Central America and the Caribbean. Not everyone has a tablet to watch.

  • What about a family of five traveling together, even where a family has a tablet they may not have five.

  • Alaska Airlines at least will rent tablets to passengers

  • Update: A frequent pet peeve of mine, American’s power ports don’t work on much of their fleet at least as often as they do work, plugs fall out of them. There’s no current maintenance program for outlets at American Airlines although the airline says they’re working to develop one.
    Will your phone battery let you watch movies throughout a Miami – Seattle flight Westbound?
    Or Dallas – Anchorage?

Tell me why seat back screens matter to you, as I say I know from overwhelming feedback that it matters but it’s outside my personal experience as to why.

Meanwhile perhaps the most surprising defense of seats where you can’t open a laptop is that ‘if you can’t pay for more legroom you shouldn’t be working.’

When I fly Southwest Airlines in coach I can open my laptop and work. Flying American Airlines coach on the new Boeing 737 MAX I really couldn’t. I had to angle the laptop 45 degrees, lean the base up against my chest, and curl my hands in order to type. That sort of posture, against slimline seats with less padding, gave me a back ache within an hour.

Walter defends coach seats where you can’t open your laptop,

If you need to work on a plane, you should be getting paid enough to fly in biz class or extra leg room at least, anyway. Otherwise if you have to work in coach you should be more worried about finding a better job than typeing on your oversized laptop.

There are several things wrong with this reasoning.

  1. No one is talking about an oversized laptop. I couldn’t open my ultrabook.

  2. There’s no problem using it on Southwest.

  3. Business travelers fly Southwest day in and day out for their routes and frequency. Southwest is the largest airline by passengers domestic passengers carried.

  4. The 737 MAX reduced the number of extra legroom seats, they aren’t always available.

  5. Business travelers value their time, change flights (including paying to do so) and often more comfortable seats just aren’t available on those new flights.

  6. American reduced the distance between seats in their extra legroom cabin on this plane too. And they did the same thing in first class!

And by the way, paying American for extra legroom doesn’t get you extra space in the lavatory where the sinks are so minimized that they don’t hold the water in when you wash your hands, water sprays everywhere. No this is not a reasonable product.

American’s new coach seat isn’t worse than the worst coach seat out there now. But the worst coach seat out there now is a problem. Take away the seat back TV from many existing American Airlines aircraft, shrink the lavatory, and reduce the room offered even in Main Cabin Extra and first class and you have an across-the-board reduction in customer value.

Telling passengers that they should get a new job if they can’t pay American Airlines more money seems strange when the passenger can keep their current job and fly the largest domestic passenger airline instead.

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. At some point, I hope her government steps in to regulate these kind of shenanigans. Because at some point, this becomes a safety issue and it’s already a consumer rights issue. Because the airlines will do whatever they can get away with when it comes to screwing over anyone who’s not an exec or Wall Street. And no, the answer is not further deregulation or even increased competition. We’re in this race to the bottom partly because of ULCCs and airline products are getting worse and worse across the board, except for the top 1% that can actually afford to fly revenue international premium cabins. We see it in the US and every country across the world that insufficiently regulated capitalism inevitably leads to growing inequality between the rich and the poor and a shrinking middle class. We need the government to work for the majority of people, not just the wealthy donor class. Unfortunately that won’t happen in this ridiculous political climate. But this is something that government regulation is perfect for fixing and will likely need to be doing in the future.

  2. 1) After 6-12 months, my tablet doesn’t hold enough charge to watch movies for an entire midcon/transcon, especially in the winter. Same for my phone. Its dead after 2 hours.
    2) The outlets don’t always work. Chargers fall out.
    3) Many devices pull too much power for the outlet to function (the dreaded yellow/red light). My work laptop is one of them, so if I wasn’t juiced up before a flight (which is every Thursday where I’ve been in client meetings all day) my battery dies halfway.
    4) The DRM on the streaming is obnoxious and sometimes works on my work laptop, sometimes not. I can’t fiddle around with every security setting on my work laptop to install whatever plugin with some permutation of settings, so a bunch of time I can’t watch.
    5) The Android experience is hit or miss, probably because they only bother testing on certain devices. On my Nexus 6P, the United app crashed every time I tried to stream. Same for my tablet (Nvidia Shield K1). If the only way to watch is on the newest Galaxy, just say so, but that in itself is stupid.
    6) Not being able to open up my laptop all the way to watch content or work because the seat pitch is too tight. I have to angle and t-rex my arms to type anything. My neck hurts after doing this all flight.

  3. We can all complain, but until these products get so miserable that people will actually pay more to take another option, nothing will change. As you have pointed out, what people want and what they are willing to pay for are two very different things. I frequently book last minute tickets, and it makes me laugh how often the only seats available are the economy plus/comfort/MCE because although most everyone in the back is griping about how cramped they are, they won’t pay $40 more to do something about it. Remember AA is the airline of “most legroom in coach” which was an epic fail because the vast majority of fliers pick the cheapest airfare. Until that changes we are in for more race to the bottom.

  4. I don’t mind the bring your own device for domestic flights. But the airlines need to provide power to every seat. No 2 plugs per three seats garbage. You can’t eat your cake and have it too. However, any planes flying international should have seat back entertainment. Many people from other markets aren’t aware of this US trend and don’t have the airline app on their phone to begin with. I had to explain to two Germans to download the United app before we take off. They thought the only thing available was the overhead monitor (this was a 744 from ex-FRA).

  5. I do not want to watch entertainment on my phone, tablet, or laptop. I want to use one those devices to be productive (or just surf the internet) but I still want to be entertained. Do you watch a movie on your laptop in your living room or do you watch a movie on a TV and use your laptop to multitask?

  6. I’d argue that all AA pax need is a flight crew 😉 If the flights are grounded who cares what kind of seats are on board?

    At this point even UA would get my business over AA…

  7. Seatback entertainment just makes my flight more enjoyable. Overall, it keeps passengers happy and occupied even during a delay, and It tends to show first run movies sooner than streaming which is a huge plus. I know of many people who solely fly JetBlue for the entertainment. AA cannot continue this race to the bottom without suffering the consequences of poor decisions.

  8. Gary, I commented on your last post that I value inflight entertainment on seat back screens, and I stand by that and continue to think this will be a very noticeable loss to many customers, from my perspective this has nothing to do with income – having a six figure salary does not mean people will have a tablet. My thinking is:

    1) I prefer to only carry a smartphone and my laptop, and this I believe is increasingly common (tablet sales have long since peaked and are in decline I believe).

    2) While my smartphone will suffice for a 30 minute commute on a train I would not want to spend hours watching or reading on it.

    3) I don’t want to be forced to bring out my laptop to watch movies, thereby giving up use of my tray table (and in any case you have pointed out that is not feasible on this new, denser configuration).

    4) streaming content has been unreliable onboard in my past (albeit limited) experience.

    Therefore for any flight above the “commuter hop” threshold (let’s say 2 hours) I consider inflight entertainment including seatback or armrest screens an important factor. I simply don’t believe I am in a minority here.

  9. How does one eat a meal and use their laptop at the same time? l like to watch tv or a movie, while simultaneously eating and drinking…without having to juggle a mess of cups and plates on my keyboard. Is that too much to ask for?

  10. “Meanwhile perhaps the most surprising defense of seats where you can’t open a laptop is that ‘if you can’t pay for more legroom you shouldn’t be working.’”

    Really? There are people who end up in coach because there were no available business/first class seats available due to the last minute nature of their flight. Or possibly there were other flight issues that caused the person to be downgraded.

    But yeah, as long as people keep paying for this level of “service” they will keep providing it or lower it until they lose money. Hopefully more and more JetBlues take advantage of the low quality competition.

  11. Gary, I would amend your statement above to fit your issues…’No this is not a reasonable product to effectively work in comfortable manner’. But it is a reasonable product (to some) if you’re just sitting there, taking a nap, reading a book, or watching movies/tv on an ipad/phone. But I hear ya, even before AA rolled out these new seats, every time I’m stuck in economy minus and need to use my laptop I cringe thinking about the yahoo in front of me thats going to slam their seat into recline and crush my computer. But as a previous commenter pointed out, until customers actually stop buying tickets for this product, there is no incentive for any airline to change course.

  12. As someone who works on flights, I always get excited when I see PTVs. They allow me to work on my laptop while watching a movie, whereas if I just watch on my laptop I can’t work at the same time.

    Furthermore, as others have mentioned, streaming can be a pain.

  13. Well argued. Also one of the readers mentioned a hope the govt would step in. I hope they step out and allow US carriers to feel the real heat of competition.

    Now if air travel with free competition still leads to a down spiral then we have another issue to discuss.

  14. This is classic Parker. Do you remember the IFE controls on USAir that he had disconnected, so that passengers would sit there throughout the flights punching the buttons trying to get them to work? I would watch this and wonder what kind of hideous greedy slob would do this to their passengers? Parker.

    The SImon Legree point here is that the controls and TV fittings are there for us to look at to remind us that the other airlines have controls that work and actual TV’s in those spaces, but the owners of this one want us to suffer and be reminded of it.

    I was a 40 year American passenger who quit flying monthly when they devalued miles and then had the gall to still call them a mile. When they did this they were warned that the 30% who are miles flyers would walk, the Mileage President Suzanne Rubin quit over it, but they did it anyway because these are not competent customer oriented executives but planewreckers who relish sticking it to customers to let them know who’s boss. We know who’s boss, and your fat ass is fired.

    Second most hated men on the planet next to Trump?

  15. I think I’d be happier with streaming entertainment if the GoGo player didn’t skip large chunks (30 seconds – 2 minutes) of content with everything that I’ve tried to stream through them. It’s been like this for a year and hasn’t improved. GoGo sucks and, until they get better, it’s stupid to remove the much more reliable Thales seat back screens.

  16. My wife and I left AA as EXPs in May, transitioned to SWA and couldn’t be happier. Flights are on time, quickly qualified for companion pass so fares cut in half, more flight availability, free wi-fi as RR+, happy FAs etc. Only drawback is it often takes more time to get from point A to point B. The RR program works better – any seat, any flight. AA was late 1/3 time, crew attitudes were all over the map, legacy USAir planes were junk. I’m on my 170th flight of the year. AA could have had my business, but the poor quality and cost killed it.

  17. The biggest reason I prefer seatback screens to personal devices is that I don’t enjoy looking down at the screen I’m watching, and having that screen be at an angle. Yeah, the little device holder would help with that, except I travel with an Ultrabook, not a tablet (I can do a lot more work on an ultrabook, and don’t want to carry two things). Of course, with 30″ pitch I also can’t even open my Ultrabook if I want to use it on the flight. Not to mention if it’s a flight I’m not working on, I’d rather not pull my laptop out, period.

    Second to the angle/distance issue, I want to be able to use the tray table while watching something. The one time during a flight that I most want to watch a movie or TV show is while I’m eating. What if I want to drink something while watching a movie? Do I put that on my neighbors table?

    And like others have mentioned, the frequency that power plugs or streaming systems don’t work seems significantly worse than issues with IFE. I hope Alaska/Virgin doesn’t ever remove their iFE screens, Virgin’s the one consistent airline with decent IFE content (and solid pitch).

  18. Walter’s an idiot.

    I have a good paying job, and part of the reason why the company can pay me well, is because they’re not putting every single traveling associate in business class. I do not consider traveling in a business a worthy compensation, compared to getting paid more cash up front.

    But hey, if Walter can do it, so can everyone else, right?

  19. @Walter – I am glad that you get to consistently be in the top 10% of flyers on every flight and fly upfront. However, 90% of the flying population either does not have “a better paying job”, must fly under corporate spend rules (everyone flies coach fares at my company – top to bottom of 500+ employees), or cannot get the upgrade. The in-seat entertainment was a differentiator for AA and in the past I specifically chose flights that had it available. I’ll go back to the good old days and read a book.

    All this proves is that the airlines are in a race of the pigs, except none of them are striving for the best, they are all trying to be last.

  20. @Gary, clearly flying is a matter of “different strokes for different folks.” I’m semi-retired, and my wife is a Criminal Defense attorney. She’s in court five days a week. the last thing either of us want to do when flying is actually WORK! Clearly there are a lot of people who *do* work on planes, but I would urge you to consider the ENTIRE flight.

    1. Fine, let’s first take Southwest as an example. 175 (relatively egalitarian) seats. No IFE onboard. How many people have their laptops open and are WORKING? How many are businessmen or -women working on a PowerPoint presentation, compared to the number of couples, or families with young kids; of college students off to home/school/Spring Break, or grandparents off to see their newest grandchild? No scientific studies, but anecdotally, the overwhelming majority of the people on board are NOT working . . .

    I will stipulate that more people on any given American domestic flight may possibly be flying for business (i.e.: corporate-sponsored/purchased travel). And it wouldn’t surprise me to see more people who are indeed working on a presentation, a speech, whatever, compared to your average Southwest flight — but I’m willing to bet it would STILL be a minority of the total number of passengers on the flight . . . even onboard a flight to Vegas during _______________ [insert name of extremely popular convention here].

    2. YOU are not the typical airline passenger. Neither, to some extent, is anyone who’s in “into” the “points & miles game,” for lack of a better term. We are the tiniest fraction of an airline’s passenger base. Even so, not all of us who read your blog (or others) use WiFi onboard planes. It’s often too expensive (without free access via a credit card or an annual pass); it can be spotty; etc., etc.

    3. Finally, there are the issues of technology and ownership. I have a notebook (a MacBook Pro). I do not own a tablet of any kind. The same is true for my wife, AND my kids who are both in their early 20s. My octogenarian mother-in-law *does* have a iPad, but anything beyond accessing her email or her calendar would send her into proverbial conniption fits. I’m not going to go out and buy a tablet and learn how to use it just so I can fly AA and use that instead of the plane’s IFE . . .

  21. The average airline passenger in the US has a six figure income? Please do share the source for this. Would be interesting to read

  22. How about while I Sit here for an hour on the ground waiting For takeoff? It would be great if I had an IFE – like on Delta – which I can watch on the ground and while landing?

  23. 1. Access to a tablet or movies when you fly isn’t a human right. As a human being you should be capable of occupying yourself for the full duration of a flight.

    2. Watch on your smart phone if you don’t have a tablet. You won’t die.

    3. Buy a portable battery bank for $10-$50 and get from 1-5+ charges if you have power issues. Or listen to music to conserve power.

    4.Read a book rented from your local library instead. Or sit quietly and relax.

    5. If you don’t like it, pay more for the service. Forcing carriers to offer you something drives the price up for everyone.

  24. @Chucks —>

    1a) No one has, TTBOMK, suggested that access to a tablet/movies (and by extrapolation, IFE) is a human right. What AA (and other carriers) give, AA (and other carriers) can taketh away…

    1b) Again, no one has said that human are incapable of occupying one’s self for “the full duration of a flight.” But, obviously, that’s much easier for the hour between LAX and SFO than it is between LAX and JFK, than it is between LAX and HKG. And besides, if given a CHOICE, wouldn’t you prefer IFE than not? And if so, why are you flying onboard a USL3 that has removed their IFE (presuming, of course, you are)?

    2) No, you won’t die. But you will suffer eyestrain over a long flight, and need to buy new glasses after extended use.

    3) I do listen to music, while either reading my book (yes! real paper!), or working on a presentation for work on my laptop that doesn’t require wi-fi. I do have a portable pack for my phone to deal with the few idiotic carriers without power.

    4a) I do read. Often.

    4b) Sitting quietly and relaxing…HA! Certainly it is doable upon occasion, but not when the baby across the aisle or in an adjoining row is crying, or the kid is kicking your setback, or the overweight man in the seat next to you is spilling into your seat, or … or … or …. AND, the longer the flight, the more likely those types of interruptions will occur.

    5) I’m sorry…I don’t think you truly understand the issue. No one is “forcing” carriers to offer ANYTHING. Rather, the complaints have to do what the carriers are TAKING AWAY, which is a completely different thing than “forcing” them to provide something new.

    As far as “paying more,” don’t be silly! That implies that AA (and other carriers) will raise their prices if they add IFE, when in fact the reverse is true: they are ripping out the IFE, but NOT lowering their prices. In other words, we’re paying the same for less! Meanwhile, jetBlue, Delta, and Alaska (at least until they finish removing the IFE from their ex-Virgin America metal) are offering the IFE at the SAME price…why fly AA?

  25. For myself, I can take or leave seatback entertainment. There may or may be films or documentaries offered that I want to watch, and I always bring other entertainment regardless.

    However, considering the person behind me, I would prefer that any seatback entertainment include only video entertainment and NOT games that require repeated tapping on the screen. On my last Delta flight AMS-SEA, the passenger behind played such games for a couple of hours and it was very jarring to my seat while I was trying to rest. I thought perhaps she was poking the screen with gusto, but when I got up to take a look, it appeared that she was tapping the screen fairly lightly. I’d never experienced that level of annoyance before, and it’s certainly something that I’d like to never experience again.

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