Rumor: American Airlines Considering Bringing Back Seatback Entertainment for Domestic Fleet

American Airlines is in the midst of a brand project under the leadership of their new Vice President of Marketing. That includes addressing some of the consumer pain points that are dragging down customer perception of the airline.

Earlier in the month I wrote about three key improvements American is considering: a new wifi provider for their international fleet, improved domestic first class seats, and fixing the dividers on international business class seats.

Multiple sources are telling me that American is now debating bringing back seat back video screens to the domestic fleet. Last summer Delta completed installation of seat back video on its 600th plane while American remained committed to ripping out seat back screens from domestic narrowbody aircraft that have them today.

American has staked out a position that with high speed internet and streaming entertainment, including live TV, they’re preparing for the future. Most customers bring ‘their own devices’ although that includes their phones capable of video.

  • On flights with seat back video, customers certainly use seat back video
  • They prefer it over watching on their phones, even when there’s a place to put the phones so passengers don’t have to hold the screens (and even on planes with power outlets so they don’t burn down batteries)
  • Families with several children often don’t have enough devices for everyone

I don’t value airline inflight entertainment but I’m an outlier. I bring my own device and I make sure it’s loaded up with everything I need. Mostly I want to work on the plane, and need internet access, but when I’m too tired to work I’m picky about what I watch and plan ahead.

A year ago American Senior Vice President Kurt Stache laid out the company’s vision that seat back screens would be obsolete in 3-5 years, and that not installing the screens saves hundreds of millions of dollars (it costs about a million dollars per plane to offer seat back entertainment). It also saves weight, and therefore fuel.

Delta’s plan now is mounting tablets at seats and streaming content to the tablets and they report that this cuts their cost by two-thirds. This is the Airbus A220 system, and will be the system for their Airbus A330-900neos. A lower-cost alternative that leverages the streaming capabilities American is already investing in could make such a move more viable.

To be clear my understanding is that no decision has been made to reverse course on inflight entertainment. And officially American Airlines tells me that “we are not rethinking our decision” to stream to customer devices on domestic flights rather than installing screens at each seat. However “as always, we continue to listen to customer feedback and are proud of the progress we have made to deliver high speed WiFi and free live TV.”

American has paused the retrofit of their Boeing 737-800s into the new ‘Oasis’ interior style that matches what’s offered on the Boeing 737 MAX. That should give them time to fix some of the problems with it, such as first class seats without meaningful underseat storage and uncomfortable seats.

It could also give them time to consider whether they want to be eventually taking seat back screens out of the legacy American Airlines 737-800s that already have them (since if memory serves those are at the back end of the retrofit schedule), or whether the Oasis retrofit could mean installing tablets for showing wirelessly provided entertainment even on planes that today do not.

Whether or not specific initiatives come to fruition the leaks coming out of American recently largely seem to be about making positive investments for customers and improving the travel experience. That’s certainly a departure from what we’ve seen over the past few years.

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’d rather them give us another inch or two of pitch. I can bring my own Phone, Ipad, Tablet, Laptop, etc.

  2. Im fine without IFE …. IF I have power at my seat. Speed up the implementation of outlets at each seat.

  3. LOL. Talk is cheap especially from USdbaAA. They aren”t going to do a thing about it under the current regime. More like #StuckOnStupid.

  4. Well, if they do dot this it will at least stop the complaining about “no IFE” from an annoyingly vocal minority of posters on the AA FT forum.

    Otherwise, I could not care less about seatback IFE on domestic flights. My IFE is a paperback book. Actually, all things being equal, I’d take a plane with no seatback IFE on a domestic flight over one with it. The less incentive someone has to poke and push on the back of my seat, the better

  5. @ Gary — With the upcoming variable award pricing, they can lower their mileage redemption costs drastically and invest in the product. This is the Delta model — steal 10 cents from the customer and give cents 2 back while smiling. People will think they are better off, and many will be.

  6. Hahahaha this would be hilarious. I’ll believe it when I see it. Dougie, please begone!!!

  7. So another management decision walked back because it was wrong. How do these clowns still have jobs? Stock’s is down 50% while competitors stocks up. Theres the least competition EVER in the post deregulation era and AA can’t make money flying planes. WTF!?!? The wrong democrat wins in 2020 and CC interchange profits vanish and guess what…Citi/Barclays aren’t gonna keep Dougie afloat.

    AA should be CRUSHING their competition. But management has made so many poor choices they really are a shell of what they were. Seat back video ain’t gonna help

  8. If seatback IFE is so obsolete…..why does AA keep them on the A321T’s for their premium domestic markets? They have many longer domestic flights that are running with no seatback IFE.

    Their rationale is seriously flawed and once again Delta has out smarted AA with the IFE seatback tablets with streaming content.

  9. Roughly more than 50% of the planes I fly with power have outlets so “loose” that no mobile device’s power brick will fit tightly enough to charge it. That goes for USB and Universal. So I either have to plug in via my computer, it make sure I am 100% charged when boarding (for whatever that’s worth).

  10. I have never been able to understand why seatback video is so heavy and expensive.

    If a plane has 180 seats, buy 180 cheapo Android tablets at $50 each—total cost: $9K. Take existing seatback USB power (5V DC) and tap into it inside the seat: $10 for wiring. $10 for a plastic frame to hold the tablet and $20 per seat labor to install the contraption. Fully functional wireless IFE for $16,200.

    Even if I’m off by an order of magnitude, I’m still an order of magnitude cheaper than current costs.

    It’s 2019. The technology to do this cheaply and lightly already exists off the shelf. There’s no need for these massive heavy bricks of converter boxes or whatever under every seat and video screen assemblies that are 3” thick and weigh 5 pounds.

    That said, I’m with many of the other commenters that the lack of personal IFE screens is mostly meaningless to me. I would much rather prefer reliable in-seat power and a place I can rest my own phone to watch it. And then maybe do like Alaska and stock 50 tablets on board for the people who can’t use their own devices.

  11. I think 90% of frequent travelers would prefer free “good” wifi on domestic flights over a screen IFE systen at their seat. That’s the move to watch at AA: will they make the wifi free?

    As far as screens go, if you can now install them for 1/3rd the cost of a 2016 system, that ENTIRELY changes the math and practicality of such a system. This is what undoubtedly has caused AA to revisit its decision on screens.

  12. If they add back the seat back IFEs, I would probably start flying them domestically again (but they need to get rid of their terrible rocking and rear facing Zodiac business class seats before I will fly them internationally again; one experience was enough).

    When they started taking out the seat back IFE, I took all my paid first class flights to Delta and most of my corporate travel to Delta. But where I live, Delta has less direct flight options than AA.

    Come on AA, do something right for a change and start taking my money again!!!

  13. Flew economy on a Delta A220 from LGA to DFW yesterday and it was perfect. Comfortable seats with leg room and anecdotally 70% of the passengers were using IFE.

  14. IFE doesn’t make an ounce’s worth of difference to me.

    If AA really wanted to do something for top flyers, they’d stop making it hard for us to get value from the perks they grant. Systemwide upgrades are virtually useless because there’s never inventory open to redeem them.

  15. Streaming is the future and give back much needed personal space from the seatback and under the seat. A few weeks ago two flights I was on had seatback IFE and the audio jacks were worn out and wouldn’t hold the headphone plug. Another blog recently reported that Hawaiian’s new 321 NEO does not have seatback IFE in main cabin. It’s the future.

  16. Any liberal who complains about the lack of seatback IFE is a hypocrite. If CO2 is that evil, and removing IFE saves fuel, how can you be against it? Well, how do you justify flying while maintaining that ideology for that matter, but let’s take baby steps.

  17. I like the IFE. It’s good for your neck and back to have the screen at eye level. It’s also bigger than your phone.

  18. If IFE is there, I watch the map and use my iPad. I want power with plugs that work. I would rather not have the big IFE box under the seat too. That said, Delta’s use of wireless streaming seatback tablets is eye opening.

  19. Agreed. IFE is important however the biggest issue here is the leadership of the company. Doug Parker has taken a great company (legacy AA) and turned it into uselessAir. (US). It’s sad to see the former glory of previous AA being dragged down by horrible decisions left and right. Keep the IFE and get rid of Parker

  20. I was on a recent AA A321 flight in F with no IFE. Streaming to my laptop worked for about 15 min and then it froze. Had to reconnect, watch all the damn commercials again and then I could fast forward to where I left off. Froze again 15 min later and I gave up. Not impressed, and could not watch movie and eat meal due to the minuscule tray table.

  21. How does Parker keep his job. In the most recent airline ratings American is ranked number 8 (only ahead of Frontier).

  22. I hate to agree with everybody, but, unfortunately, its true. I am an AA captive in Dallas, and fly them regularly; flew a recently Oasis’d 738 last week DFW-SCJ and although I was in MCE, the seat was so bad it felt like riding on a piece of wood. AA used to be a premium carrier, and could charge a premium for it. Not so much anymore. I think Parker et al should be forced to fly a 3-4 hour flight minimum in regular economy (not MCE) at least weekly for the next year to see what he’s done to the product.

  23. Flew this morning on an AA 737, still had the drop down screens. Had fast satellite WiFi and streaming video. It was adequate and I was happy except anytime I paused the movie, I had to restart and FF to the place I paused. I realized during the flight, an interesting fact. Amid all the criticism for removing seatback IFE from the narrow body fleet, it is never mentioned that many AA narrowbodies never had seatback IFE.

  24. The funny thing is that they actually have one of the best, if not even largest content offerings I’ve personally ever seen anywhere. The content offering is significant. “IF” there is installed screens. The “stream to your phone bs” gives less than half of that. It does not work consistently, never saves the place where you left off, and is just in general a rather poor experience. Again, holding your phone in your hand for hours — not worth the effort. I used to fly often on the older 737s with drop down screens and would tune in to the audio and really enjoyed the “American Jukebox” channel. Now that’s gone too.

    With a seat back screen, you plug in the headphones (whether yours or theirs) and everything is there. With your own phone, it’s plug in headset (or wireless which may be better) then having to mess with power cables cluttering things up. A laptop would be good, but there is positively no way open even a small laptop with the tightness. Again with headphones and power cables in an already cramped space. It’s just not worth it, particularly for very little content through their streaming service — that often times does not work.

    Something that is often missing from this cheapness of theirs is communicating to the cattle they are flying. If people just listen to music on their own phone, they will miss inflight announcements. For me, I’d rather miss those announcements, but think of safety announcements. Delta gets a big nod here as they have the attention of their flying audience as they do a lot to keep you watching their screens. AA goes out of its way to discourage you from seeing their screens so they miss out on talking to people. This to me, further promotes an ill feeling towards AA. Simple yes, but think about it.

    Is a screen a make or break? Probably not, but it’s one additional step. The experience overall with DL is by far better than AA. I end up getting stuck with AA as I’m in a hub market so it’s often them or connections and less preferred schedules. Given a choice of non stop offerings with DL I’ll take that any day.

    The ‘new’ first class seats in AA are quite bad. The power outlet takes someone capable of yoga to be able to get to it. Zero under seat storage, yet with no entertainment or even a place to put your own ‘device’. Poor experience really. Flight attendants have to make up for the bad experience. They do their best and I give them a lot of credit for doing all they can to overcome a bad product. Some have given in and just go through the motions. Others go out of their way to provide a great service to a bad product. I always thank them and acknowledge how special they make the experience when they do.

  25. I just flew on the new A321 NEO from PHX to MCO this past week. This plane was great. I think the seating was closer to 31 inches then 30 and 34 in MCE then 33. The wifi and live TV was fast and was able to watch the entire PGA broadcast on my 4 plus hour flight with a few interruptions for rough air ( aka the storms in TX). The table holder was a huge plus if they add screens back in I hope they are wireless and don’t eliminate the under seat storage that this set up provides.

    I will note that our FA were fantastic and even apologized to my wife for not being able to upgrade us (she’s EXP) and brought us warm cookies from first class. There is a positive change going on at AA and I hope it continues. Kirby can destroy UA now and let AA grow in the right direction.

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