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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I would actually just be thrilled if they introduced a free tier (i.e. lower speed / no streaming capability) for Wi-Fi. Everyone has their own preferences, but that would actually keep me entertained far more than in seat screens.
Seth Miller says
There’s something of an irony in that streaming ends up being more about total bandwidth consumed than speed of the connection in many cases. A well-optimized stream can run at acceptable resolutions and not need a 10 Mbit pipe or anything that ridiculous. But it uses the connection consistently rather than bursts of loading a web page or such so the total bandwidth consumed is higher.
But I also get the point you’re making about the cost: If IFE is theoretically free and you’re telling passengers that you swapped in an internet connection in place of the screens then why is the connection not free? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that a Netflix rep tried to sell that same approach not too long ago: https://paxex.aero/netflix-free-inflight-internet/.
Exactly! You highlighted my point! Why is AA’s wifi not free?
Seth Miller says
Nothing in life is free. Who should pay the half million dollars to put the hardware on the plane. Or the ongoing satellite connection costs?
The prices are coming down and airlines are thinking about it. But demand is also increasing and getting internet on to a chunk of metal hurtling 500mph through the skies at 30,000 feet is not the easiest thing to do.
Well then why put them on planes in the first place? You may be right but what efficiency does removing comfort of the passengers provide if the half of people who use IFEs will just stop flying American Airlines and regular fliers due to the lack of comfort. Or what if a passenger does not have a personal device? What would you do on a 5-7 hour flight. Stare into the empty seat? Plus the app for AA in-flight entertainment is also for a fee for some devices. Look at YouTube. EVERY A321neo video for example highlights the fact that IFEs are gone in a sad way. Every regular (not low-cost) airlines made improvements and found what to add / fix to skyrocket profits and comfort. I’m sure AA can find something better to add / fix besides cramping 15 more seats and removing IFEs to make a little or no difference or even make it worse.
My Point: What is the point of efficiency if it cuts down on the comfort of passengers and prevents them from choosing AA?
Why not just add the WIFI expense into the price of the ticket?
If “not” having IFE screens is such a good thing then I would expect AA to remove them from all planes in all classes of service.
Seth Miller says
Be careful what you wish for. 😉
I think the company (and customers, in many cases) sees a difference between short-haul and long-haul. And that’s fair. But if you’re going to claim you’re competing for the premium traveler it is probably a better idea to do it with a product that looks and feels more premium, even if the passenger doesn’t use it. Having that option for them can be worth a lot.
True. If they are free or well “close to free” then it would not make them lose money so why not leave it for convenience? I’m sure if you AA look at some other airlines then you can find something better to fix or replace (not saying aa is bad, its good), just suggesting.
I agree 100% with removing IFE as a traveler with a family of four. Of course we will always bring our own screens. Also, on Delta flights no one wants to pay for the configured headsets anyway. So they only watch and don’t listen.
Seth Miller says
In what way does the airline removing the screens improve the travel experience for you and your family?
Also, if you bring your own headphones they work 100% fine on any modern IFE system today. And the newest systems even support Bluetooth pairing.
It’s harder to control what they watch on a longer flight. Some parents try to get a few hours of sleep. Why is Deadpool currently on United’s airplanes?
I’m a fan of Copa’s strategy, where only first and extra leg-room have in seat screens. Not sure how well it is working for them (espiecially with the Max grounding), but from my perspective as a former airline pricing analyst, it presents a lot of opportunity for buy-ups beyond just legroom
Robert Thom says
Senior management at AA is so out of touch as to what passengers want. It is only what they think passengers want. They rarely listen to their passenger and crew unless there is complete push back. Multi millionaires making decisions on what the middle class value….what a joke. Talk about BIAS! And the BOD is comprised of million and multimillionaires. How is that in touch?!?! AA cant even score higher than their competitors on delivering bags ontime, arriving on time and customer satisfaction. Its no wonder…they are totally out of touch. Even their alliance partners offer more….free messaging, power at every seat, in seat ife and even free wifi on some. Not to mention glassware, china and metal cutlery served in the premium cabins while AA is serving boxed meals in paper, plastic and cardboard boxes. My oh my. How a once great airline has fallen under the direction of Parker, Isom and their executive team. United lucked out getting Kirby. He is kickin butt over there. Hey AA….why cant you get something as simple right like having a bottle/box of H2O waiting at the biz class seats in your domestic premium cabins like all your competitors do??? Sure would help with your inconsistent pre departure service (before covid).
I agree entirely. AA is the worst airline I have experienced, even worse that Frontier, which says a lot.
Thank heavens. I hated when the person behind me with ADD keeps tapping on the screen.