In-seat screens are not coming back to American Airlines‘ single-aisle fleet. The company doubled down on its decision to focus on streaming entertainment on board in the wake of United Airlines’ about face on the issue, citing technical and ecological reasons.
It’s lighter, it’s more efficient, and, ultimately, it can keep up to speed with what customers want, so we feel really good about that.– American President Robert Isom on the company’s current approach to IFE on single-aisle aircraft
The company highlighted its progress towards a unified aircraft cabin configuration. The entire 737 fleet is complete and the A321 are on the way, with just over 100 left to go. In this week’s earnings call company President Robert Isom shared that the focus on two main content delivery approaches, both that depend on the passenger providing the screens.
Streaming from the ground
We feel really good about focusing on what customers want most. And so to that end, we were the first in the business to get out and make sure that our aircraft are equipped with the highest speed satellite Wi Fi that offers a full streaming capability on all of our narrow-body aircraft.– Isom
Once American committed to upgrading its fleet to faster wifi service on board the program went spectacularly fast. Isom is correct about that and the company should be proud of achieving the conversion so quickly.
Suggesting that it solves the challenge of streaming content from the ground, however, gets tricky. That capability is generally available and generally works. It is also generally pretty expensive.
American is far from alone in charging for the service; only JetBlue offers streaming-capable connectivity in the US for free today. Still, when talking about that as an entertainment channel for passengers, overlooking the cost factor is a challenging position.
American’s WiFi implementation also still has some differences depending on whether the plane is equipped with Viasat‘s Ka-band offering or Intelsat‘s 2Ku solution. That inconsistency leads to potential for passenger confusion and misguided expectations once on board.
On the plus side, Isom did suggest that live television would be returning to the skies. That product was cut to save costs early in the pandemic.
Streaming from the plane
We’re intent on making sure that our stored content product on the aircraft offers customers the ability to [watch] whatever they want to. And we’re also going to be getting back into the live entertainment as well. So, from a technology perspective, And as we take a look going forward, we’re gonna stay abreast of whatever it is that our customers need.– Isom
The option to stream content to a personal device has proven popular for airlines. It is a lower cost, lower weight, lower complexity offering. And it is especially easy to implement with the on-board WiFi network tied to in-flight connectivity. But does that make it the correct choice??
The multi-screen environment
We know that 90% of our customers bring their own devices, and those devices have higher definition screen capabilities that we can put on aircraft right now.– Isom
Yes, the screens passengers carry are good. They also have modern interfaces that the traveler is used to operating. But putting 4K screens on a plane is the default today. That’s higher resolution than most of the content on board and more than enough to work in the small form factor that fits into seats.
User interfaces for the on-board systems are getting better, too. They’re more dynamic and more responsive, in part because most newer ones run a version of Android rather than a proprietary operating system. And, perhaps more importantly, they’re far easier for suppliers or the airline to update today than in prior generations of IFE solutions.
Beyond those considerations is the discussion around whether passengers would prefer to use their personal screen for something else while being entertained via the seat-back, a multi-screen inflight experience. Or maybe they’d prefer a full size screen to watch rather than the one that fits in their pocket. Just because they carry a screen on board does not mean it is an ideal or even their preferred entertainment portal.
It is easy for Isom to take this position today. United will take some time for retrofits to begin and new deliveries won’t materially start to impact likelihood of passengers getting the new Signature Interiors until later into 2022. Bookings won’t shift until that’s a real thing for passengers.
And maybe they won’t shift at all, bearing out American’s decision to save money by not putting the screens on board.
Screens are expensive, add weight (though new versions are much lighter than before), and generate a lot of heat. They are also a great opportunity to sell advertising, deliver in-flight retail or provide an additional layer of flexibility.
And, whether they are used by a passenger or not, they give the impression of flying with a more passenger-focused airline. That last bit rarely shows up directly on a balance sheet.
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