United Will Put Seat Back Video Screens on Some New 737s, Could Force American to Do the Same

Delta continues to double down on passenger entertainment not just for international flights but across its domestic fleet. They’re now over 700 aircraft offering seat back entertainment screens.

United and American have been moving in the opposite direction. They have eschewed screens to save money – about a million dollars per aircraft – offering streaming content that customers can view on their own devices. In most cases this means passengers watching movies on phones.

  • On American you have to download their mobile app to watch streaming content, something customers usually aren’t told until after they’ve boarded and even after push back when it’s often too late.

  • American’s Airbus A320s won’t all offer power at each seat until the end of 2021, so customers run through their battery and can’t watch a thing.

Scott Kirby, former President of US Airways-American Airlines and now at United, appears to be retreating from his effort to go with streaming entertainment only on narrowbody aircraft according to a report by Seth Miller.

Kirby isn’t usually keen on passenger experience investments unless they can be clearly shown to move the needle on revenue. He once tried to charge passengers for water. He has either determined the airline is losing business to Delta because of this amenity, or plans to use Boeing 737 MAX aircraft on much longer routes where they’ve traditionally felt they had little choice but to offer seat back video entertainment.

If these planes simply fly routes United used to use Boeing 757s for, that won’t carry nearly as much significance. But if United indeed backs away from streaming-only domestic going forward American would be forced to listen to the internal voices at the company arguing for a return to seat back video because customer impressions of the airline are formed heavily by inflight entertainment.

American Airlines is viewed more negatively than it should be because their domestic cabins seem ‘cheap’. As a result it’s hard to imagine their international premium cabins are as good as they are (at least in terms of hard product). It’s a ‘reverse halo effect’.

Fortunately it’s now possible to stream video to embedded screens at seats, which cuts down on costs by two-thirds.

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. “[From the linked article] One screen might show a movie while the other is used for browsing online social media sites or working.”

    I know I’m probably an outlier here but this sounds just stupid to me. You can’t do 2 things at once no matter how much you tell me you’re a good “multi-tasker”. When I sit down and watch a kids TV show with my son, and I scroll through my social media on my phone, I pay zero attention to anything that is happening on the 65″ screen in front of me.

  2. Had two short flights last week with my 14 year old son, one way on DL and the other on B6. DL had nice big screens and B6 was just a very old interior. I didn’t ask him but he offered that he liked the DL plane better even though the old B6 plane in Extra Space seating felt like first class to me with all the crazy legroom. He loved the seatback entertainment options on DL. He’s 6′ tall now and still would choose entertainment over legroom (and even over B6’s free wifi).

    Industry execs are more commonly out of touch with what their pax actually want…

  3. Before United decided to eliminate Directv featuring 100 channels of live satellite programming to choose from that’s comparable to options available at home, this was a reason we’d book flights on that airline, even after everything else had gone to the dogs during the Jeff Smisek era.

    In fact, in our household, it was a series of terrible trans-cons on United for my partner, beginning with a late afternoon LAX-EWR flight his company booked him on (before I began doing his corporate travel bookings – on Delta) that was aboard one of its earliest new 737-900s WITHOUT seatback IFE – or ANY IFE at all – stuck in a 30” pitch row AND those hated hard as cement, butt numbing seats that soured him on United, and after another year or two more of terrible UA trans-cons (including his last four in 2017 where three were aboard its revolting 10-abreast “densified” Boeing 777s [200s & a brand new 300ER] that he HATED even in E+; and one dilapidated 757 that even before the pics arrived hours later he began sending text messages about it being the dirtiest plane he’d ever stepped aboard…the pics sure did prove that), we flew United ONLY for short a few EWR-RDU flights 1-way when we were certain we’d be aboard 737s that still had Directv installed!

    Otherwise, most of our domestic flights, but especially transcons (next 1 in a few weeks) are now on Delta to ensure old school IFE, and even wide-bodies, too, instead of being cooped up in a narrow-body for 6 or so hours, because Delta’s mainline aircraft, except for 717s and MD-88s/90s, all have seat-back IFE, whereas United’s don’t.

    In fact, when United embarked on its earlier effort to install Directv throughout its 737 and 757-300 fleets, that was a big draw for both of us, as we like the option of 100 live channels to choose from to be BETTER than Delta’s paltry 16 or so – or even JetBlue’s 36 channels for its OG LiveTV aboard the David Neeleman/Dave Barger era Airbus A320s and Embraer 195s!

    Yep, we’re BIG fans of the Directv option United used to have on most of its 737s – even when they charged for it!

    So, who knows? Maybe if/when 100 channels of our favored Directv on nifty seat-back IFE screens is widely available again on United aircraft we just might find ourselves flying United more again, too, since EWR is much easier (and quicker) for us to get to than either JFK or LGA, and we really, really, really do love its Directv IFE more than any other domestic airlines’ IFE* !!!

    But until then, for sure most, if not all, of our flights will remain on Delta since everything else with them is vastly better than every other airline we’ve flown in recent years – even if its seat-back IFE
    offers a paltry 16 channels of live satellite tv (half of which seem to be ESPN, other sports networks plus golf! golf! and even more golf! 😉 ).
    *(we haven’t flown JetBlue’s aircraft that have the newer, 100 channel seat-back IFE yet)

  4. More DirectTv and the looping of Chase-UA Visa commercials?

    BTW- Those card-stock Chase promo sheets in the seatback are perfectly sized to fit over the screens. Just bend and tuck.

  5. It’s no longer necessary to use the AA app to watch streaming entertainment or live TV. I’ve done it many times using the browser on my phone, as recently as last Friday.

  6. I’m not going to use my phone for a movie. Battery life on phones is limited. Also battery longevity is limited if you keep recharging your phone.

  7. I just don’t have the patience or find it good for my eyes to try to watch a movie on a phone. I’ve tried a couple of times and stopped within about 15 minutes. Yes, where I can choose between AA and another carrier, this comes into play in the decision, and in my overall impression of the quality of a flight.

  8. If this were my decision to make, I’d go with United and American. Most people have their own electronic devices these days. Give passengers ways to maximize their usability during the flight and save your money on duplicating that.

    I’ve flown both domestically and internationally quite a bit in the last couple years. It’s just anecdotal evidence from my own observations. But it seems clear that the seatback devices are being used less and less.

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