American’s Front Line Employees Think Getting Rid of Seat Back Entertainment is a Very Bad Idea

Recently I wrote about American’s “Tell Me Why” podcast with Senior Vice President Kurt Stache. He laid out the airline’s plans for satellite internet and explained why the airline is getting rid of seat back video screens.

American employees comment internally on these discussions. It always amazes me how frank they are. Union protections and management promises notwithstanding I don’t think I’d be so forceful in my criticisms of management as American’s employees often are in these forums.

As regular readers know I don’t often use seat back video. I don’t rely on the airline to entertain me. I always bring and watch my own.

However employees at the airline seem pretty convinced that streaming content to passengers own devices — and not offering them seat back screens — is a big mistake. Here are some of the arguments they’re making to management:

  • What happens when the federal government bans personal electronic devices in the cabin, like they did on flights to the U.S. from several countries earlier last year?

  • The claim that 90% of customers bring their own devices doesn’t pass muster with flight attendants who see customers in back every day — unless flip phones count to get up to that 90%. Flight attendants report that older travelers and children don’t have their own devices.

  • Seat back screens won’t become outdated just like your TV doesn’t.

  • Even if customers can manage without seat back video you’d be hard pressed to find any that prefer not to have seat back screens.

  • If you’re not competing to offer a better customer experience, you’re just competing on price. (Employees should worry about the company competing for the least amount of revenue, since one of the ways the American’s costs are higher is labor.)

  • Flight attendants give out a hundred sets of headphones and run out. Even if customers could entertain themselves on their own devices they prefer not to. This also suggests that customers aren’t coming prepared to entertain themselves using only their own devices.

  • How is American going to compete against Delta which is giving customers seat back entertainment and high speed internet?

The new interior standard that will roll out to the rest of the narrowbody fleet is the interior of the Boeing 737 MAX. Though I don’t like the reduced legroom in first class or main cabin extra, I think the biggest problem with that plane is tiny lavatories more so than lack of seat back entertainment.

American says that the 737 MAX gets high marks from customers, but there’s only a handful of customers on a handful of planes filling out surveys and they’re being given free satellite internet versus expensive air-to-ground internet and the survey results are in comparison to the legacy US Airways “basket of deplorables” fleet that doesn’t even have seat power. So the claim about customer survey scores for the aircraft simply doesn’t mean what American management thinks it means.

In fact, one flight attendant lays it all out.

I was wondering how we were going to bring legacy US Airways narrow bodies up to legacy American Airlines standards. The answer is the 737 MAX, we are not. Legacy American is going to go down to the legacy US Airways standards. Big mistake. Just talk to the flight attendants that work in the Max they don’t like it at all. I’m sure AA has people reading the reviews to the Max interior and has to know that they are not good. It is a lot more than the inflight entertainment, the airport is uncomfortable inside. Also our airplanes are starting to ahve the worn appearance in the cockpit and in the cabin like legacy US Airways.

Of course the airline’s CEO hasn’t flown the airline’s new standard product and is strangely proud of that, too. But he thinks ‘removing seat back entertainment is going for great’.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Another MAGA campaign…just Make AMERICAN Great Again this time.

    How’s that working for them?

    Obviously much the same as 45’s promises. If the people don’t like it no amount of SPIN will make it it a WIN!

  2. “How is American going to compete against Delta which is giving customers seat back entertainment and high speed internet?”

    American hasn’t been competitive with Delta since “more legroom in coach.”

  3. AA is on a search for profits but they’re following the wrong treasure map. You’d think they’d copy DL on more things…

    When I have a choice I choose to avoid AA…

  4. AA is following the mistake of BA, they can’t decide if they want to be a full service airline or a low cost carrier, and instead are doing a poor job of being both. It might be possible to find a way to walk that line, but this isn’t the way to do it.

  5. I don’t get what AA is thinking. There are times where I will be watching something on TV and doing something else on my computer (i.e. work for my employer or work for my own side project). From my chats with Flight Attendants over the years, they like flights with screens because it keeps passengers occupied and makes them less likely to come to the back for extra drinks or snacks.

    People might be cutting the cord, but they aren’t putting their TVs in a garbage can. People still watch Netflix, Hulu, Youtube, etc. even if they aren’t watching ESPN, CNN, or any other cable channel.

  6. I feel for the flight attendants. scrunched in passengers are more likely to riot when they can’t watch laggy Elmo videos on their screen

  7. I have definitely heard that if an airline has seatback entertainment, the customers are better behaved. Remember the fact that seats in coach are tight on most domestic airlines. While I always travel with a laptop and ipad mini, there are many travelers that dont have them etc. Frankly you have companies like Amazon who makes cheap android tablets. I cannot understand for the life of me why they cant create a locked frame or sorts and that tablet drops in. If one breaks its cheap to swap out. I can see a company like amazon cutting an endorsement deal or something. Something like that can please all.

  8. Why do you think it’s significant that some AA frontline employees are against ti? Do you truly believe they understand the economics? Flight attendants and ground crew don’t know or care about equipment cost/maintenance and the higher fuel usage from the extra weight.

    You criticize anything AA does. If they would have decided instead to invest in new IFE, you would have probably mocked them as well.

    Personally I think it’s a good business decision to ditch the IFEs for most domestic routes.

  9. @WR. I personally have avoided buying tickets with long-haul flights that didn’t have seat-back entertainment (looking on google flights for comparison.) I will continue to do so as long are there are still options.

  10. “Even if customers can manage without seat back video you’d be hard pressed to find any that prefer not to have seat back screens.”

    Raises hand.

    This EXP is one. For anything domestic outside of the premium transcons. The less reason people have to mess around with the back of my seat the better.

    Bring a book.

  11. @Bob — As someone who recently had a pax play a video game on my seatback (poke, poke, poke), I know where you are coming from. 🙂

    @A — I’ve worked and invested in the airline industry for more than 30 years now, and while I’m almost never 100% confident of anything, I am 100% confident that AA’s decision to not install screens on its new domestic aircraft is the right financial decision. IKt isn’t because pax wouldn’t want them, it’s that they won’t pay for them. Now that there’s a lower cost IFE solution, it’s not surprising that screens are being eliminated on shorter-length flights. I’d note that WN only opted for IFE when wireless became possible.

    Also interesting is that while certain critics always say AA and UA simply copy DL, here’s an instance where they have emphatically decided that DL’s in-flight strategy is wrong.

  12. When your CEO only receives his pay in company stock he is only looking at WallStreet. He will never care about what the employee or the customer says.

  13. Because you are a sycophant and pander to the industry is in response to you not saying I would not speak to management this way even with union protection. That is why this country is full of bullock.

  14. Although I tend to agree with the chattering classes on this one, I think it’s probably fake news. Have you watched a kid/teenager on a plane lately? They could absolutely care less what is provided to them as long as they have their smart phone or tablet to fiddle/play around on. They are completely disconnected from the way we old folk would interpret this issue. AA will be fine.

  15. I’m with Bob and iahphx, glad these short haul domestic flights are missing the back seat IFE. An old guy behind me thought he had to really mash the screen to make a selections for whatever he was doing – that was effing annoying for 2 hours.

  16. Interesting to note, two of our most highly regarded, successful and profitable airlines, Southwest and Alaska, do not have seatback IFE. Funny, nobody is bashing them. Its also interesting to note the entire legacy US Airways narrow body fleet does not have seatback IFE. AA has made a smart decision to embrace new inflight streaming technology and also to add power ports. Get rid of that space hogging hardware.

  17. I am curious about how much fuel is saved. This reminds me of Japanese cars competing with American cars in the 80’s. Toyota/Honda included all the expensive convenience options as standard eqpmt and slowly captured market share. AA ticket cost will need to reflect their lower operating cost or else customers will choose more amenities for the same price, ie Delta. It may only be one or two additional sales per flight for now. If and when 1 hour flights get delayed by 2 hours on the tarmac or in the air, Delta’s customers will be less annoyed than AA.

  18. As a CK at American (and I know Several of the Mgmnt Level Employees) I was informed it would be close to One Billion to put IFE across a fleet of close to 950 airplanes….cost of product/installation,lost revenue with plane out of service just to compete with low fareJetBlue and Delta (who reminds Me of an outfit tossing pasta against a wall to see if it sticks). And the End Game is The Airlines KNOW that the average Passenger is O-n-l-y shopping on PRICE pure and simple. People nowadays WANT the World for the Lowest Possible Cost and do not fool Yourself otherwise. If You think Delta is soooooooooo fabulous that they have Peanuts and gave You Two Mfing Biscoff cookies on the Last Flight which caused You to orgasm, Have at It. I fly Delta on occasion and trust Me….they are NOT All That. Damn planes are some of the OLDEST in the Skies and I find Them Quite Phoney to say the Least. And as far as Employees telling this Blog Writer ‘what They think about Anything’……….Pure BS! He has No Clout with the Current Mgmnt Team running AA and they basically laugh Him off as a buffoon and He KNOWS IT which is Why there is a Continual Barrage of Negativity directed on the Blog. He KNOWS Nothing.

  19. I’m confident that no seat back screens is a big mistake. Jetblue seems to be doing very well going in exactly the opposite direction. Their screens are small but much appreciated.

    Those who think passengers only buy on price are wrong. Price is important but so are other things. The question is how much passengers know about amenities before they buy.

  20. Just flew to California round trip on American. Eek. Hate the new seats without screens. What are they thinking? I flew to Las Vegas from California on Virgin and voila, seats with screens. People need something to watch to pass the time; not everyone has an iPad; or one that’s charged. Plus no seat chargers. Really bad idea….

  21. The CEO is just destroying the company. AA used to be a rather good airline and had a very good mileage program. It continues to decline in nearly all regards. Get ride of that CEO and bring back order.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *