In a nod to a more generous in-seat entertainment experience, United Airlines plans an AVOD upgrade for at least part of its single-aisle fleet. In a message to employees on Thursday Chief Customer Officer Toby Enqvist indicated that an interior retrofit is on the way for “our older narrow-body airplanes, putting in new bins, AVOD, and new seats.”
The company declined to share any details regarding the internal news, though it is clear works are in progress:
After navigating through the worst crisis our industry has ever faced, we are excited about what is ahead for United. We’re focused on continued innovation to enhance the customer experience as they return to the skies. We look forward to announcing more details in the near future.
The aircraft shown in the video is one of the company’s older 737-800s, a 2001 delivery to the airline. It flies with the LiveTV system from Thales today. With the LiveTV platform quickly losing its install base (JetBlue is also quickly retiring it) the ability to support the platform is disappearing.
Replacing it with in-seat screens, however, would be a retreat from the company’s previous approach to entertainment on recent aircraft deliveries. The most recent 737 MAX orders depend on passengers to bring their own screens and content on board.
The potential for a shift to in-seat screens was first tipped in August 2019, at least for new delivery 737 MAX aircraft. Bringing it into the existing 737 fleet as a retrofit is a real additional expense, but the potential benefits to the company, and passengers, likely justify the cost.
Leaving the screens off the planes saves significant capital as well as fuel (the screens and wiring add weight) and licensing costs. Delta Air Lines and JetBlue continue to press forward with screens on board, however, including on JetBlue’s newest A220 fleet. American Airlines continues its focus on removal of screens from its planes, however.
Passengers appear keen to have more of the at-home experience on board, which means more than just streaming content on their personal devices. Indeed, it means more screens with content overall. One screen might show a movie while the other is used for browsing online social media sites or working.
United’s latest embedded IFE solution, built in partnership with Panasonic Avionics, includes an updated picture-in-picture solution that could allow multiple content streams on the in-seat screen (e.g. a movie and moving map) plus the passenger’s personal device. It also adds major accessibility improvements for passengers.
Or Thales could be so happy about retiring the legacy platform that it cut a deal with United on an upgraded version of the Avant IFE platform.
The retrofit also gives United a chances to separate the connectivity solution from the entertainment platform. Recent deliveries carry the Viasat Ka-band solution while the older 737s also connect to that same network, but with Thales as an integrator.
The (multi-) million dollar question, of course, is which planes will see the retrofit. Replacing the LiveTV/DTV system seems a likely move based on ongoing support costs. And Enqvist specifically mentioned “older” in the video, suggesting that not all the planes will receive the new system.
The newer deliveries without screens today could continue to not have screens, though that makes for an interesting fleet mix and passenger experience challenge. Then again, the company has operated with that mixed experience for years and not worried too much about it.
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