Dear Airlines: Please Don’t Take Away Our Video Screens!

Korean Air seat-back video.   Author’s photo.

January 9, 2018

FOR TWO DECADES NOW, seat-back video has been the standard for inflight entertainment. Passengers the world over have grown accustomed to watching movies and shows on the screen in front of them. As well they should; it’s a fantastic amenity. I’ll go so far as to say that it’s the single greatest advent in onboard service in the past fifty years. Onboard comfort is all about the art of distraction, and nothing is a better distraction than being able to binge-watch your favorite TV series or catch a few films.

We’ve come a long way. Flyers of a certain age will remember “the in flight movie,” projected onto a scratched-up bulkhead screen. For the sound, you’d plug a bulky, stethoscope-style headset into the armrest. The picture was always blurry and the audio sounded like it was being transmitted from a submarine. Which usually was fine, because they rarely showed anything you wanted to watch in the first place. Today, passengers can choose between dozens or even hundreds of on-demand options. You can start, stop, pause, rewind…. In first or business class, with oversized screens and noise-reduction headsets, you essentially have your own personal theater. Indeed, one of my favorite guilty pleasures in life is sitting in an airline seat with a meal and a glass of wine, watching something fun on my screen.

Yet the days of the seat-back screen might be numbered. One of the big airline stories making the rounds of late describes how carriers are planning to do away with them. The future of inflight entertainment, we are told, is turning instead to wi-fi streaming, whereby passengers can stream shows and movies directly onto their own laptops, tablets or mobile phones.

Emirates first class suite.   Author’s photo.

And, we keep hearing, this isn’t just something the airlines want. Supposedly it’s what their customers want as well. People find the seat-back screens old-fashioned, or uncool — or something. They want streaming video instead.

I’m not buying it. Carriers might wish this were the case, but count me among those who don’t believe it. I suspect the media is simply repeating unchecked what airlines are telling them. I don’t believe it because it doesn’t make sense: With a seat-back screen, you plug in your earphones and go. There are no power issues, no extra cords or wires, and the space in front of you is kept clear for eating, drinking, or whatever. Watching with your own device is a lot more cumbersome. There are the sign-on and streaming settings to configure, for starters. Then, once you’re watching, you’ve got battery drain to deal with, and/or you’ll need to hook a power cord into an AC outlet, provided your seat has one. Also, tablet and smartphone screens are often smaller than the seat-back kind. And, if you’re in economy class, you’ll be using up pretty all of the available tray-table space, making it impossible to enjoy a meal while you’re watching.

Not to mention the recline hazard: Any time you’ve got your laptop propped on your tray, you run the risk of it being crushed when the person in front of you comes hauling back without warning, jamming the screen between the tray and the seat-back (see photo below).

Sure, in-seat systems are heavy and expensive — upwards of $10,000 per seat. But all airplane components are expensive, and the typical screen, over the course of its lifespan, will have entertained thousands of passengers. They’re reliable, convenient, and just so downright useful.

And I haven’t mentioned the moving map displays, the exterior camera views, etc., that are strangely fun to watch.

Hazardous viewing on China Airlines.   Author’s photo.

Now, I have to confess, I sometimes switch off my screen and watch something pre-downloaded on my Macbook instead. I don’t like doing this, for the reasons I just listed, but once in a while there just isn’t anything in the carrier’s library that I want to see. Thus the big caveat in my argument is that an airline needs a decent IFE system to begin with — one that’s easy to navigate, has a wide-enough variety to pick from, and has the hardware (i.e. a big enough screen) to go with it. To that last point, the tiny four or five-inch screens that some airlines have stuck with simply don’t do the trick.

There’s a lot of variation here. My sampling is by no means comprehensive, but I’ve flown a good number of carriers and I have my favorites:

For sheer volume, from blockbusters to Bollywood to documentaries to pop music, nothing comes close to Emirates’ “ICE” system (the letters stand for information, communications, and entertainment). Rest assured you’ll find something to watch or listen to, and the screens in all cabins are huge. The trouble with the Emirates system, however, is that it’s maybe too big for its own good. The ICE guide — a booklet in your seat pocket — is thicker than a novel and confusingly organized; sifting through it all — there are thousands of channels, including many Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and Urdu movies that seem a bit superfluous — can be taxing.

Other airlines have lots to pick from but a clunky user interface. Qatar Airways’ IFE, for example, is appallingly tedious to navigate. Still others have decent usability but limited choices.

My vote for the best all-around system? Delta Air Lines. Theirs is a Panasonic-based platform that is both user-friendly and packed with movies and shows. The layout and navigation functions are the cleanest and most intuitive I’ve seen, and there’s a more than ample, eclectic selection of films and shows. (The one catch is that when clicking into either the TV or movie sections, the default screen shows only the newest additions. Look for the drop-down menu that allows you to access the entire “A-to-Z” archive.) Over the past few years I’ve flown with Emirates, Qatar, Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, Thai, and a dozen or so others. Delta’s system beats all of them.

I should note that Delta also has an onboard streaming option called “Delta Studio,” offering much of the same content, at no cost. If that’s your thing, have at it. I’ll keep watching it seat-back style.

Whichever airline we’re talking about, the idea of fumbling around with a computer or an iPad, with wires all over the place and all my personal space taken up, is not a welcome change.

Moving map on Delta’s outstanding IFE.   Author’s photo.


Update: January 12, 2018

Based on the comments section, my opinions on this matter seem to be in the minority. But I’m not backing down.

I was on a long-haul overnight flight just yesterday. After takeoff, as the cabin crew prepared to come around with the meal service, I turned on my screen, plugged in the noise reduction headset, adjusted the channels and volume with the hand-set, and settled in. A few minutes later I had my soup, my appetizers, and my meal there in front of me while I watched five straight John Oliver episodes that I hadn’t seen before. It was all just perfect.

Then I imagined, instead, trying to have this same experience using my own device. The thought of having to futz around with my computer made me anxious just thinking about it. Not to mention, it would have been impossible in the first place, because, even in business class, there is simply not enough room. I could enjoy my shows or I could enjoy my meal, but not both. Right away you’ve sucked away a huge amount of the pleasure — the whole point of sitting in a premium cabin and savoring the luxury of it.

And why should the onus be on the passenger to worry about battery charging, lugging around wireless headphones, and so on, when for two decades the airlines have been supplying the hardware? And what of the millions of people who don’t have tablets or laptops, and/or who resent having to carry them onto a plane in order to enjoy something that heretofore was already there and hard-wired in? I’m still not getting this. Why would a passenger choose to voluntarily make the inflight entertainment experience more cumbersome and more of a pain in the ass?

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107 Responses to “Dear Airlines: Please Don’t Take Away Our Video Screens!”
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  1. RaflW says:

    I’m a fan of seatback IFE. As one who most always rides coach, my favorite is having an empty seat next to me, so that I can watch a TV show or movie on my screen and have the moving map on the next one over.

    I do appreciate the option of streaming for aircraft that don’t (and probably will never) have seatback screens. The short-haul rides on 737s, MD90s etc that just are not worth the airline’s installed costs. But for a nice 4 hour 757 trip, or 9-10 hours on an A330, seatback screens. Please!!

  2. Wolf says:

    My my dear … have started flying with PanAm?

  3. Lune says:

    I’m with you in theory: I’d far rather have a built-in IFE than futz around with devices. But in practice, I think a device is better.

    The biggest problem with IFEs is their uneven quality. Yes, that Korean Air screen looks quite nice. But what about jetBlue’s, or United? They’re awful. Forget tablets, I would actually prefer my phone to some of them. And given that people upgrade their devices far more frequently than airlines upgrade their seats, it’s almost always a given that your device will be better than the seatback screen.

    I think if airlines got creative with solving the problems you cite (a tablet / phone gets in the way of meals, etc., plus you have to futz with a charging cable), then, yes, I’d rather use a nice, up-to-date tablet with a gorgeous display than a tiny screen installed 5 years ago.

    That KA seatback is a good start: it has a USB port right there. If it allows charging a device, and the seat had a built-in adjustable holder for a tablet (something like the expandable phone holsters people buy for their cars, or maybe something else), you could easily setup your tablet in a few minutes and you’re good to go for the rest of your flight. Heck, imagine using that setup with a bluetooth keyboard! The screen position would be far more ergonomic than a full laptop on your tray table.

    The main issue is what about people who don’t have tablets? But with their savings, airlines could easily lend cheap tablets (maybe even at the gate before boarding).

  4. JamesP says:

    As an avid window-seat flyer, there’s also the matter of making the guy on the aisle put his computer away and fold up the tray table when I need to get up. It still happens with seatback screens of course, if the guy is working on his computer, but a lot less often.

    What can I say, my first flight was before I was even born but I still love looking out the window!

  5. Jeff Beresford-Howe says:

    I completely agree with Patrick. There just isn’t enough room in economy for my MacBook Pro, keeping it charged is a hassle, my other devices are a Kindle Fire and Huawei Honor phone which are inadequate for watching any video for any period of time, and wi-fi on planes has only progressed from non-existent to terrible.

    EVA has great in-seat entertainment options, too.

  6. Nik says:

    I actually think its a good idea.
    As a passenger i thought about it for years, why do i have to pay these expensive entertainment systems with my ticket, when i have an ipad, a macbook and an iphone right in my case? its absolutely ridiculous, especially because these screens were highly unresponsive and slow, a real pain in the ass. just let everyone use their own devices, and for first and business class leave the screens and give them the possibility to stream their own media to the big screen, or even to mirror the desktop of their devices

    • John LM says:

      Just to be clear, little, if any savings will be passed on to you with the absence of IFE. Would you forgo the convince of it being there for everyone to save 5 bucks? Trust when I say that carriers will try and monetize the streaming services, at least at first. Not to mention I can already see the blackouts coming where the entire wireless system will fail (as they are now to do at all levels) on flights leaving everyone without the ability to watch something. Lastly, how do you overcome eating and watching your iPad at the same time in economy?

  7. JKFed says:

    Agreed. Until recently, I was a very frequent flyer for over 5 years. Last year, I did 6 flights >10 hrs and another 8 at around 5 – 7 hours each all in business class and several other 3-4 hr flights. While I had my iPad mini with me, I still preferred the inflight option and I had no desire to drag out my laptop for any reason, especially in coach. In flight is just more convenient and reduces the likelihood that I’m going to leave stuff behind or run out of juice. Plus, over the years I’ve discovered lots of documentaries, music programs and foreign flicks I wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

    Long haul, I’m more interested in sleeping as much as I can, but when I’m awake I want something easy that doesn’t take up space.

    Airlines have made travelling light a must for everyone. In order to efficiently navigate security, TSA restrictions, onboard bag police, and competition for overhead space, one needs to pack pack as efficiently as possible. It’s counter intuitive for Airlines to restrict, restrict, restrict only to turn around and force travelers to ring their own devices. Also, there are still many elderly who don’t have devices or families who don’t want to lug a movie worthy device for every member of the clan. If they want to get rid of seatback entertainment, they could look at the Air Canada Rouge option with iPads available free in bus class and for a fee in economy with an option to access the same content on a personal device via an app.

  8. STisdale says:

    It comes down to physical space. Devices are always changing, technology will change, and perhaps it will someday be reasonable to assume you can stream movies on an airplane going anywhere. (That’s certainly not true now.) But it won’t matter if there’s no room. And there’s barely room to open a sandwich on many planes now. On some flights, I find it difficult even to get my laptop open (it’s not that big) and I live in fear of the seat-reclining-disaster. For a lot of flyers, especially frequent flyers on their own dime, upgrading every time is simply not possible.

    Give us a reasonable amount of space, and we can talk.

  9. Speed says:

    One 90 percent solution (it would work for 90 percent +/- of all customers) would be a seatback tablet holder for every seat. Bring your device and watch it without cluttering your tray.

    My preference is to use my device and have the airline supply power to every seat.

    I recently experienced on downside to airplane Wi-Fi … While I had no connection problems, several passengers had trouble and the “solution” was to re-boot the system taking everyone off line for the five or ten minutes it took. Three times on a four hour flight. Cabin crew is not tech-support.

    • John LM says:

      Picture this: you are just falling asleep on a red eye when all of a sudden the passenger behind you decides it’s time to break out the iPad. They fumble ruthlessly with the one size fits all holder while rocking your seat back and forth. Planes are already filled with idiots that eschew the remote and use the touchscreen, somehow thinking pushing harder on it will make it work better. Each poke reverberating through the new slimline seats. Now imagine the entire plane pushing their iPads the entire time. Not as hard maybe but the annoying factor is multiplied by the number of times you feel that slight poke behind you. No thanks.

  10. Russell says:

    Surely the major reason for changes in airline provisioning of on-board entertainment has to be driven by content costs. WiFi streaming does “disrupt” the content provider charging models of yesteryear. It allows airlines to renegotiate based on average-connected-user-device rather than every-passenger-has-a-screen. Maybe substantial savings are possible for cost-strapped airlines.

    And the second major reason will be the brand risk associated with parents claiming that their little Johnny could watch violent content on an adjacent screen. If the airline provides the screen, then they are responsible for its position and its adjacent visibility. Changing to user-owned screens shifts that responsibility to passengers. I always wondered if this is why most seat-back screens have such poor quality when viewed even slightly off-centre.

  11. Scott says:

    There’s no way this is going to work. They’ll have a lot of unhappy guests and then they’ll have to put it back.

  12. Mark Maslowski says:

    And if you’re coming into the US from certain countries, you aren’t even allowed to carry on a laptop or tablet

  13. Frank says:

    You are 100% correct. I will occasionally watch something on my laptop but screen is much nicer – especially all the free on demand stuff. Everyone in WiFi will crush the network.

  14. psimpson says:

    I can’t argue with the points you make, the seatback is wasted space, and putting a screen there allows you to eat without juggling your personal device.

    I travelled to Hawaii from Boston for Christmas vacation. Two ~5 hour flights on American (they found pilots for them somewhere) and they were made tolerable by the simple fact that American has installed AC and USB outlets in all their A321 seatbacks. So I could run my power-hungry laptop and watch the movies and read the books I had loaded on it. All four flights had them!

    So, while I appreciate the seatback screens, the AC and DC charging outlets were even more welcome! Thanks, Airbus, and thanks, American for installing that option.

  15. Speed says:

    Alaska included the following in an announcement about the Alaska/Virgin America single operating certificate …

    • High-speed satellite Wi-Fi on all of our Boeing and Airbus aircraft, starting with the first airplane in March.

    • You’ll continue to enjoy free texting and more than 200 free movies and TV shows, direct to your device.

    They’ve made their decision.

  16. TJ says:

    The IFE screens always lag far behind the devices that customers have. Whenever I’m on a long haul flight, I think about how much I would rather have a power port to keep my own device powered up, than the IFE screen with maybe 2 or 3 movies I would sorta-kinda watch and no internet browsing or YouTube or TV or games or anything else. And I also would like to not have the system box knocking out a third of my legroom under the seat ahead of me.

    But the things you say are true too – you can’t really use your own device during meal service, and people like you and me highly value the moving map and outside camera views. (But I must say the map Southwest provides on their BYOD portal – even if you don’t purchase internet – is excellent, and it wouldn’t be too hard to put the outside camera on BYOD either.)

    I wish someone in the airline seat industry would take some initiative and standardize the equipment, so that the entertainment could be upgraded without replacing the seats. The IFE should really be almost as simple as taking a consumer Galaxy Tab and molding a mount for it, and developing the software to fit. There’s no reason why IFE shouldn’t allow you to pair your favorite Bluetooth headset with it to hear the audio, for example, as every Galaxy Tab could do. And considering how much processing power fits inside an affordable tablet, there’s no reason we should still have those awful equipment boxes blocking your feet.

  17. Peter says:

    I totally agree with you. One of the most enjoyable flights I had was on Lan Airlines watching Daniel Craig in 2 James Bond movies.The other was watching Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes on an American Airlines flight.

  18. Dr Dave says:

    No Sir, I don’t like it!

    Sounds like one of those ideas cooked up by airline execs happy to save some fuel money but who are totally oblivious of what it is like to ride down the back in the cheap seats. I can see a few practical issues. How many phones or tablets realistically have enough battery to stream video for 11 hours plus? Charging ports or power outlets will be needed at every seat, and sufficient power capacity available to handle 2-300 devices charging at once.\
    I routinely take an iPad loaded up with movies on all long haul flights as “insurance” against a faulty seatback screen. On the occasions I have had to use it, not only is it hard to find somewhere to put it, the glare and reflections on the screen force you to have to hold it at odd angles just to see anything.
    I don’t know how this would work on Chinese airlines, who don’t even allow phones to be turned on during the flight, regardless of flight mode.
    Maybe I’m just cynical, but it all seems part of a conspiracy to drive people to upgrade to premium cabins by making conditions down back as unpleasant as possible…

  19. Ben says:

    Firmly agree with you here. This is a recipe for broken and/or shorted out electronic devices, and will make economy even more cattle-car then it already is. Also is a huge downer even for first and business class. The shorted out electronic devices comes from being a citizen of a country using 110/120 Volts, and flying on an airline based in a country using 220/240 Volts. You need a voltage adapter to use a 110/120 Volt electronic device with a 220/240 volt outlet, and it is easy to forget the need for one in a carry-on.

    • TJ says:

      What kind of device are you using in 2018 that doesn’t use a switch mode power adapter, i.e. one which happily accepts any voltage 100-240V?

  20. Paul Schnebelen says:

    Count me as part of the minority that sides with you on IFE, Patrick. The remotes can be a pain to use and it’s not fun being bombarded with commercials in your face, but I’ll take watching a movie, playing a game, or watching the in-flight map on a seatback screen over my phone or tablet any day. I’ve never availed myself of in-flight Wi-Fi, because it’s hard enough finding public area Wi-Fi that’s fast and reliable on the ground – I don’t have any faith in the airlines or their franchisees to do any better in the air.

    I remember years ago, Alaska had no screens on their 737s; if you wanted to watch a movie, you had to rent a DVD player at a shop in the airport (and hope you were flying somewhere that franchisee had a store to return it). Maybe someone could rent large-screened tablets with content downloaded to it at pickup & use a similar business model as those airport shops did if the airlines pull the seatback screens, but I doubt it.

  21. SD Star says:

    COMPLETELY with you on this issue. I want the real estate of the tray table for my food or computer. Your logic is totally sound and I am very upset at the loss of IFE. Most people I know feel the same…

  22. 39alpha says:

    I’m kind of in-between on the screens. On long-haul flights, seatback screens are amazing and wonderful and should never go away. But on domestic narrow-body planes they are mostly annoying in-your-face ad servers. United’s (ex-Continental) domestic screens are on by default, and show random distracting junk on every seat unless the passenger explicitly turns them off. Most people leave them on, and I usually have a half-dozen of them in my field of view even if the one in front of me is off. And then, when the safety video comes on, so do all the screens again — and they insist on showing you a few ads afterward before you can kill the screen. Even then, the controls are in the armrest and my elbow turns the screen back on regularly… Those screens are being phased out, and good riddance! The flight is so much more peaceful and civilized without them.

  23. Noor says:

    Totally agreed with the argument here .Handling laptop in an already cramped space ( especially as most of the passengers are in the economy class ) requires moves suitable for a contortionist rather than ordinary mortals like me ( and it’s an extra hassle and source of anxiety for an already overwhelmed passenger ).Another factor is the laptop ban ( what about the passengers who can’t bring their own laptops or tablets ).Moreover , if you are travelling with kids , it’s just not practical as it’s easier for them to get distracted or entertained by something in front of them rather than operating a gadget in a tiny space ( and for parents of very small kids , its convenient as they usually carry their children on laps for major part of the travel ). I do wonder about the day when airlines will ask us to either stand on the airplane or bring folding chairs from our homes 😀

  24. Kylie says:

    Totally with the Pilot on this!

    I travel for business and don’t want to have to take a tablet. My work laptop is locked down (as most corporate IT systems do) – so I’d end up without. Actually it would help me choose: I’d favour a carrier who stil offered seat back options.

    It’s perhaps slightly different for folks who mainly fly domestic. Shorter flights, fewer options on the seat version, can cope for an hour or two on a Phone at a push.

    But for me: please! Keep the seat back screens!

    (BTW – same goes for the push to roll out in flight wifi -which I think is being used as part of the strategy to remove seat backs. Please – it’s the one place in the world I’m not contactable. That’s bliss for the 8-14 hours! Don’t assume pax want WiFi!)

  25. FlyingGuy says:

    I’m completely with the Pilot on this – one of the joys of flying JetBlue is that I can flip on CNN (or a movie, or whatever) without worrying about battery life and cables.

  26. Alan says:

    There is simply no comparison in the screen quality between a Apple Retina display on a iPad or MacBook versus the LCD screen the airline can afford to give you in the seat back. The same goes for the Apple competitors.

    Note that the seat-back displays for most passengers never even reached the quality of the one shown in the movie 2001. Amazing how Kubrik envisioned flat-panel displays long before anyone knew how to build one (at least commercially.)

    Further, the personally owned devices are never frozen for the often-useless PA announcements in the cabin.

    As for wires you should need only a headphone wire and maybe not even that if you have a wireless headset. If you can’t plan ahead of your trip well enough to have your battery charged then you probably shouldn’t be allowed to fly in the first place.

  27. Stephen Stapleton says:

    I recently flew Delta back from Baltimore to SF First Class and the entertainment was a streaming system that I had to watch on my own device. The problem was one had to download the Delta app before boarding the aircraft. One couldn’t download it while onboard and no one bothered to mention this until we were all onboard. Departure was delayed several hours, so there was plenty of time to announce to those of us sitting there waiting that we might want to prepare for boarding by downloading this needed app. Fortunately, once on board, the flight was delayed from leaving the gate, so the attendant let me and several others go back to the boarding area, load the app, and come back on board.

    The other problem I see is the app doesn’t pause and route cabin announcements to the viewer. With the seat-mounted systems, whatever is playing is paused and the cabin announcement comes in via the headset. With the app on my device, this doesn’t happen. I missed several announcements because I was concentrating on my device and what I was watching. The whole point is for me to focus my attention on what I am watching, so I think one could miss an important announcement.

  28. Dave Moses says:

    In defense of the old-style in-flight entertainment that you and I grew up with, Patrick, some carriers did at least offer cockpit radio on one of the 9 channels of audio.

    I mean, that was pretty sweet, wasn’t it?

    I remember always being fascinated by the old “stethoscope” style headphones too. The connection wasn’t electric! It was just a hollow tube! If you turned the volume all the way up and leaned down to the port in the armrest you could hear the audio feed. And on long flights, JFK to FRA for example, could could listen to the program repeat 8-10 times. Oh well. It passed the time between movies and meal services at least.

    • Speed says:

      ATC communications were (are?) offered by United Airlines on “Channel 9.” It was (is?) turned on at the pilots’ discretion.

  29. Erik says:

    Hi Patrick, while most of the time I share your point of view this time I disagree. To say it in a nice way my employer is very concious of trip costs. So most of the time I end up in the back of the plane where amenities are limited. And I have to fly with strange airlines to strange places in this world. I consider myself lucky if I get a large, bright and working screen with a decent selection. Most of the time this is not the case, the system saw its last hardware update a decade age and the large metal box still takes half of the space where my feet should be.
    So if you give me an USB port for power and some free WIFI-streaming I am most of the time better off using my own tablet or mobile phone.
    And of course this is cheaper for the airline. That way I recently got IFE on routes where it was not available before.

  30. Jim says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Patrick. As someone who lives overseas, I am also concerned about compatibility, inter-connectivity, even different plugs. It’s all a recipe for IFE disaster for the pax. Can’t we leave well enough alone?

    I noticed BA will remove the recline feature on their seats. I say hooray! A small price to pay, even for long int’l flights, for not having my knees crushed by some amateur who drops his seat without thinking about the person in the next row.

    • Jane washingotn says:

      I couldn’t agree more with removing the recline feature. The size of the people in the same row and the person slamming his seat back is directly proportional to the decrease in my leg room. That recently happened and me, a normal sized woman had to hang out in the aisle to have a little space. This was on Delta, my airline of choice. After ever flight, I write them but seem to be a lonely voice. Remove that recline feature, Delta. It’s really hard on the person behind. By the time the seat in front is reclined, my screen is at a hard -to-see angle. I’d rather have streaming!

  31. Just read an article which states that Hawaiian Airlines plans to phase out its 767s this year and is in the process of introducing single-aisle A321neo Airbus planes on its Hawaii-West Coast routes, especially to secondary markets like Oakland. Of note, the new seats do not include video screens.

  32. Leonard Lane says:

    Check the date for this post: January 9, 2017 (2018?)

  33. Victoria says:

    I miss the air traffic control audio. 🙁

    • Tim says:

      I do too. There was something comforting about being handed off from center to center, and hearing the voices of the other pilots in succession as ACT worked with them on approach.

      • Scott says:

        Amen to that, sir. As a fearful flyer for many years, nothing put me more at ease than to hear the gentle call and response between my pilot and ATC.

        I learned to enjoy it even more when I better understood the nomenclature and could follow our routes and those of other aircraft via waypoints. I used to fly DEN to LAS a few times a year and always got a kick hearing the request “direct to KSINO (“casino”). For all the technology upgrades, this simple audio-only feature is the one I miss the most.

  34. Planely Obsessed says:

    I don’t care if they take away the screens on short-medium haul flights – it’s really not much of a step down from having to pay $10 for a limited selection of crappy shows. But long haul flying in Y class is already uncomfortable enough, jostling for elbow room with your fellow irate passengers. If streaming onto tablets and phones becomes the norm, we’ll be jostling for elbow room with irate, stiff necked passengers staring into their laps at tiny screens for hours on end. If there’s any consolation, it’ll be harder to be distracted by everyone else’s movies playing.

  35. Ian says:

    I always bring a tablet preloaded with content [often concert films since I can enjoy them more than once- e.g. “Stop Making Sense”]. I check out the on flight offerings as well to see if there is anything I want to see. My beef is how many films are “edited” [i.e. censored] for content. As an adult I refuse to let the nanny state tell me what I can watch, so I often watch only animation [loved “Ratatouille”] and such shows as “Just for Laughs”. I agree with those who would loathe the loss of the maps feature; as a semi- claustrophobic on a long flight I want to know how many more hours I must endure being trapped in a narrow metal tube with hundreds of strangers.

  36. Texan78730 says:

    Speaking of the old screens. When movies were first introduced on aircraft, there was one screen in first class and two or three in coach. Business Class did not come into being until the late ’70s.

    The film strip ran the entire length of the aircraft from front to back. It would pass through proctors located in the ceiling. A scene on the First Class screen would be played sequentionaly on the subsequent ones a few moments later.

    Occasionally (and I was guilty as well) someone would come trotting out of First Class headed for the aft screen to catch something they had missed.

    This arrangement morphed several years later into small screens that tilted down from the overhead console. There’d be one screen for each row of seats.

    I always brought a good book and a couple of crosswords and ignored the in-flight entertainment. They were only chewing gum for the mind.

  37. Annette says:

    What is worse than not having a screen is having a screen and being charged to watch anything on it. I don’t mind paying for movies but my most recent United flight charged to watch anything on the screen, including television. Walking up and down the aisle, you could see that no one was using their screen because no one wanted to pay to watch television. What a waste.

  38. Simon says:

    Of course I prefer my MacBook Pro too, but that only works if the airline can guarantee a good wifi. Which they right now cannot. Plus I expect it to be free or the airline to pay my iTune movie rentals since the IFE they’re replacing is for free after all.

  39. DV Henkel-Wallace says:

    Patrick, I disagree. The most annoying thing about those screens is that they are always on — you switch them off and then your elbow joggles the armrest controls or the airline decides they have to be re-enabled to relay some “crucialæ info (typically an ad). As you have complained about the TVs in the terminals I’m surlrised this visual noise isn’t a problem for you.

    A book is light, doesn’t need charging, and can be used in all phases of the flight. An ipad is more responsive to your finger than those stupid seat-back touchscreens.

    How about we invent a collapsable ipad holder that you can hang over the seat in front of you?

    • Patrick says:

      The screens I’m used to switch off, and they stay off. The only ones that act as you describe, and that I’ve encountered with any regularity, are the ones on JetBlue. (They also are annoyingly small.) As for a collapsable iPad holder, that’s great, but what about the millions of people who don’t have iPads (or other tablets)?

      • DV Henkel-Wallace says:

        JetBlue is definitely the worst in this regard. As for “what about the millions of people who don’t have iPads”: they can peruse “Ask the Pilot” or some other book as we all did in the golden age of air travel.

    • Bruce says:

      Some Qantas 737s have a string running across the seatback, about where the top of the screen would be if there were a screen. (This is in economy.) You just fold your tablet-wallet over the string, and your tablet hangs at the height of an IFE screen. It’s not in the way of your food or your table or anything. I think any airline that’s getting rid of its built-in screens should, at the very least, add one of these pieces of string.

      Philippine Airlines has no seat-back screens on its A330s or A340s. There is a Wi-Fi streaming system that gives you all the content you’d get on a built-in IFE system (which I think they might have on Trans-Pacific flights), including the moving maps and everything. It works pretty well. And if you don’t have your own tablet or smartphone, they have iPads that they’ll hand out on request – usually enough to cover everyone who doesn’t have their own device. The only problem is that they haven’t overcome content piracy issues, and because of that, the latest films aren’t available for streaming on your own device, just on their iPads.


    • Bruce says:


      China Southern’s medium-to-long-haul flights sometimes have IFE (A380s and A330-300s) but sometimes don’t (A330-200s). This wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t for the two Chinese regulations which were officially repealed in October 2017 but which all Chinese airlines still enforce.

      First, you are not allowed to use a smartphone, at all, for anything, even music or video. Second, you’re not allowed to use a powerbank (or even the in-seat USB socket if there is one] to recharge your tablet.

      So phones and tablets aren’t a valid alternative for a long flight on a Chinese airline. I tend to use a laptop for the first half of the flight and the tablet for the second. But I always bring a book if I’m on a Chinese airline.

    • Randy says:

      My experience is the exact opposite of @DV Henkel-Wallace — I fly a lot of international long-haul in first or business, and after watching a film or a few TV shows while having a nice meal, I like to go to sleep and leave the screen on the map. I sleep with an eye mask, so the screen being on doesn’t bother me, and when I wake intermittently I like being able to see at a glance how much time remains in the flight, to know if I can go back to sleep or not. But on almost all systems, the screens turn themselves off after a while.

    • Randy says:

      Even if we had such an iPad holder, where would it hook? The seat-back pocket is too low, the people in front wouldn’t stand for it being on the headrest. Also, what about bulkhead seats where there isn’t a seat in front to hang anything on? Also, this would at most help with the space problem, one still needs to plug it into power.

    • Kevin says:

      I’m reading ATP on my iPhone6 sitting at a small table against a wall at Dunkin, a situation I accept because it only lasts a few minutes. Crammed into an airplane for several (or many!) hours, I read a book. Or several. The paper kind. The only use I have for the screen is to watch the map.

  40. Tim says:

    Not everyone brings electronics with large screens on long trips. Airlines should know this. Please just let me watch something on the seatback in front of me. And I do love the maps, etc.

    One thing they never got right though, is being able to tilt the screen enough for a somewhat tall person to see, if the person in front of you reclines the seat. The viewing angle is too great and the LCD screen just looks black. And I’m only 6’2”.

  41. dave divelbiss says:

    I agree with you completely

  42. There may be some cost factors that you’re not considering. (A) If an airline can get rid of the screens for 200-300 passengers, how much weight does that eliminate per flight? (B) What does that weight loss translate to in terms of fuel costs/mile over the life of the seat? (C) If the airlines switch to passenger-held devices, they don’t need to outsource the curating of material for viewing; they can simply eliminate that line item from their budgets. (D) If an airline is currently offering streaming services on a pay-per-view basis, they have to collect data during the flight, like credit card swiping. If they can eliminate that chore, that’s one less headache. (E) If the airline can claim that it’s offering wireless service to everyone on the plane, that essentially justifies a rise in ticket prices for everyone on the plane as opposed to only those who want the service. That also shifts the burden of collecting fees to the prepaid ticket price rather than an inflight or pre-boarding task. If you think of this in terms of transferring wealth (as opposed to customer service), then each penny — or fraction thereof — adds up to a tidy sum over the course of a year. If you don’t believe me, just look at how much some airlines have pocketed for baggage fees and onboard meals over the past 10 years.

  43. Rod says:

    I don’t have the means to be a frequent flyer, but even if I did I’m sure I’d still always be getting off with my head cricked at that odd angle typical of your geek having strained for hours to look out the window.

    All I need is a good book and the window. But take away the the moving map display and there will be trouble.

  44. arnold s says:

    Oh, dear, oh, dear.
    You are all sounding so, so old. Life is changing; young people will haul out their notebooks, or whatever, and watch what they want to watch. They are smart enough to not have their notebooks squished by a recliner. They will make room for drinks, food, etc. They won’t worry about cords or lack of power. This is old folks worry.
    I am of that “certain age” and chuckle when, as folks age, they begin to gripe about change.
    So, for all of you, take a chill pill. Read a book. Be glad that you can afford to fly. And don’t sound old.

    • Patrick says:

      But that’s the point. With a built-in screen, you don’t HAVE TO DO ANY OF THAT. Explain to me how it’s simpler or more convenient to stream a show via balky onboard wi-fi versus watching the same show on your screen.

      And the whole “young people” thing is infuriating. “Young people” will figure things out, and the heck with everyone else. Especially the part about how they’re too “smart” too allow their laptops to get squashed during recline… Okay, so I guess the other BILLION or so people who fly every year, who are apparently old and stupid, will just sit and watch their computers get destroyed, and it’s their own damn fault for not being younger.

    • Rod says:

      Sorry, arnold, movies aren’t my thing either. But if you coop hundreds of people up in a metal tube many kilometres above the earth for hours on end, it’s in your own best interests to have some pretty good bread and circuses on hand. They keep the natives from getting restless.
      Seems to me that taking them away would be a real false economy.

    • Simon says:

      The moment the wifi fails (as it routinely does onboard) those youngster heros of yours will realize what the advantage of the old IFE was.

  45. Alan Dahl says:

    I actually prefer using my quick-responding iPad vs the slow and laggy touchscreens that most carriers use. As to where to put it when watching Alaska Airlines has a cool setup so you can attach your tablet to the back of the seat where the touchscreen would be. Their system works well and as they have an app once you are set up on one flight it’s easy to get started on later flights.

    As far as the seatback systems I’ve used I think I like Icelandair the best but then I’ve not flown first class in decades and have never flown any of the swanky Middle Eastern or Asian carriers so I don’t have a huge data set.

  46. Eric says:

    The problem is we have set out expectations too high. Let’s face it; from the moment we enter the airport we are treated as the enemy, a potential terrorist. Then we are packed into a sardine can (assuming we can get a seat that hasn’t been given away to an airline employee or air marshal), given something they call food, and then the person in front of us reclines their seat putting our knees into our nose. (I felt so sorry for my seatmate in the middle seat on a recent flight. He was tall, trying to read something on his iphone, and then the girl in front reclined all the way back making any semblance of comfort disappear.) On another flight the bathrooms didn’t work and for two hours no one was permitted to use them. The secret is to consider each flight like a root canal: horribly uncomfortable, often painful, but usually over with in a few hours.) I’m sure the IFE systems will be gone soon. Just as airlines save money by having us print our on boarding passes, they’ll save even more by requiring we use our own devices. Onboard wifi? Anyone really think there will be enough bandwidth for 150 people streaming movies at the same time?

  47. Richard Taylor says:

    How well I remember the in flight movies. Many years ago, I was “treated” to the children’s movie “The Little Ark” about two kids trapped in an attic during a raging flood. The movie was awful but the scariest thing was, and I enjoy flying, the horrific storm as this house was battered by high winds. Just the thing someone wants to see while flying above the Atlantic. On the other hand, the first time I saw the classic “Grand Hotel” was flying from Sweden. Oh well, take the rough with the smooth I guess.

  48. James Wattengel says:

    Here in Brazil LATAM has instituted in-flight WI-FI for entertainment.

    I found excellent on a flight in June from GRU-IGU and return.

    The library was large and navigation was easy.

    The in-flight maps and other info was good.

    The image on my SAMSUNG tablet is excellent and much better that the seat back screens that I have seen recently on Swiss and GOL.

    Sound much better, and there were no issues with wires etc. My fully charged batteries were more than sufficient fore the Brazilian domestic flights.

    I won’t miss the back-of seat screens at all.

  49. Mia says:

    This sounds like a bad idea on so many fronts. I can just imagine the number of people ending up with lost or damaged phones/tablets and their attendant components. And then Nervous Nellies like me have to worry about all the multiple batteries of all those devices charging and maybe overheating. As a person who loves travel but just can’t shake a fear of flying/turbulence, I find the distraction of non-stop TV helpful. I remember the olden days when there was one screen in Economy, and I particularly recall a JFK-DUB flight where we got caught up in the jet stream, had hellacious turbulence that shook that screen silly, and we ended up blowing into Shannon an hour early.

    Someone mentioned antiquated 767s… I flew one from Bombay to Milan on Alitalia several years ago in Business Class (2007 or 2008), and boy, was that an experience. The cabin was quite light, the entire crew for that cabin was male. No liquor available except that which was Italian (so much for a cuba libre or champagne). When the dessert trolley was driven around, no one knew what exactly the items on it were. And then there was the In-Flight Entertainment system…. they came around and handed each of us a bulky tablet and a heavy cable to connect it to the seat. I remember trying to rest and watch a movie, with the tablet held at some odd angle (my seats connection wasn’t working, but that of the empty seat next to me was).

    • Harry says:

      Mia, “the olden days of one screen in Economy” are not so old. I flew Sydney-Manilla on a Philippines Airlines A350 in 2016, and that was what they had for IFE.

      My take on the issue is that it WILL come. Airlines will want to shift costs. What will delay this is the airlines need to get the design bullet-proof first. They will want to prevent individuals hogging all the bandwidth (by charging for download, maybe?) and will want to wait until it’s possible to have a SINGLE power/data connection that works with any (modern) device. Otherwise their flight attendants will be run ragged by demands for help to get passengers equipment working.

      No airline will want to be first off the block, but once one has introduced BYO-IFE successfully, they will all want to copy that model.

  50. Mike Richards says:

    I’d be happy if they just got rid of the big boxes powering the entertainment system that haunt the space under BA seats which leave you no room for your feet.

    • Karl says:

      Even brand-new 787s from ANA have these infernal boxes. On their domestic routes that don’t even have seat-back screens or even USB and only a couple of measly radio channels! Truly the worst IFE tradeoff ever.

  51. Dave says:

    I usually have the in-seat screen on the map, ‘cause I love that. I bring an iPad on which I’ve downloaded what I want to watch. Why bother with wi-fi?

  52. Jennifer Livsey says:

    I love the maps showing the flight progress and giving other interesting information. I’m a map lover, though, so maybe not everyone else finds this fascinating.

  53. Karen says:

    I love to watch the flight map (yes, I am a dork). I would really miss that!

  54. John R Rebillot says:

    I have never watched a movie or TV show on a flight. Occasionally, will listen to music but my go to IFE is a book on my Kindle or a DTB. However, I will say that I am a huge fan of maps and I usually have the navigation screen up. I would miss that.

  55. James F says:

    Seatback screens would be fine if the quality and usability was *remotely* close to the average phone. As it is, I’ve never encountered a seatback screen that I would use if I had reasonable content on my own device, and these days I tend to make sure I do. Just give us charging ports, phone/tablet holders, and do it over wifi. Way simpler, cheaper and lighter, and future-proof.

    I’m sure the systems are different in business and first, but normal people don’t get to travel there.

    Same deal for cars and their stupid screens. Just make the car easily compatible with the phone. The phone’s capabilities are superior in every way to the half-baked wheel-reinvention in any on-board ‘entertainment system’.

  56. MikeO says:

    Relying on every passenger to use their own device assumes every passenger brings their own device. Perhaps those that don’t aren’t have brought a book instead. Maybe not. Also, a place to plug in is probably necessary. And it has to be someplace practical. All of these plugs way down on the seat are impossible to get to once everyone is seated AND the cords create a trip hazard which I can only assume would make an evacuation even more hazardous. As for reliability. I have seen almost as many failures of ability to stream to the IFEs as failure to stream to devices. On the flip side, getting rid of those horrible boxes beneath the seats would be helpful, as would developing a user interface that is responsive and doesn’t require mashing the touchscreen. Way back when, Singapore Airlines actually had controllers in the armrests you could use to control everything. But I’m sure that passengers broke more of those than they do the touchscreens. Another issue us that it is hard to focus on the seat back screen is the person in front of you reclines, putting it at chest level and less than a foot from your face. Maybe the root cause of everything here is the inability of people these days to go more than 30 minutes without some form of screen-based entertainment . . .

    • DV Henkel-Wallace says:

      “the cords create a trip hazard which I can only assume would make an evacuation even more hazardous. ” — right on! Emirates has them in the seat back IIRC, which makes more sense.

  57. Richard Berg says:

    For entertainment value, the seatback systems are fine. My complaint is the user interface from the perspective of the passenger whose seatback is being punched continuously when the person behind you is playing a game or trying to get the screen to respond to a touch to change the channel, volume or some other function. If you are lucky enough to have a child behind you, it is even worse. As soon as someone develops an interface which does not result in my head being bounced around due to the incessant attempts of the person in the seat behind me to get the screen to respond, I will gladly embrace the seat back system. Until that happens, I am more than content to use my personal devices.

  58. dickwaitt says:

    On a recent trip to Brazil, we were on American going south and Delta on the return flight (with GOL in between). Screens and options, as far as I wanted, were similar.

    But the one item you failed to mention is the GPS view, of where we were and what might have been nearby. And/or why we weren’t flying on the direct route, in this case between Dallas and Sao Paulo (avoiding a hurricane that was approaching the gulf coast) and between Sao Paulo and Atlanta (avoiding a second hurricane that was approaching Miami).

    Another option, one we didn’t appear to have on this trip, was the camera view of what the crew sees ahead, or below, the aircraft. Probably not too much to see when flying at altitude, but interesting during landings and takeoffs.

  59. Matt wright says:

    I think BA have had their monies worth out of theirs!!

  60. Andrew Cooper says:

    $10,000 a seat!? Really? I’m with the airlines. I’ll happily listen to podcasts, read in my Kindle and watch video on my Android tablet while listening on my noise cancelling Bluetooth headphones for my next 4.5 hour flight to Madeira. A moving map is nice but by no means essential.

  61. Andy says:

    While I agree with you that I will miss the conveniences of seatback IFE systems, one thing I know I will not miss is the lack of space under the seat in front of you due to the placement of the IFE equipment box.

  62. bob mills says:

    I HATE seatback screens. maybe not as much as neutron bombs or leaf blowers, but pretty close.

    in addition to weight and cost i’m especially glad you mentioned interfaces and the general system design on these things, which has consistenly lagged laptops and tablets by several generations. just waaaaay too clumsy and slow frustrating to use. give me my own device, any day. hands down. for the money and weight they save, they should give us free wifi, none of this registering through portals crap.

    but even more: do you Really like having your head poked constantly from behind by someone playing video games? i don’t, and it happens All The Time.

    i had a series of Delta flights over the holidays without any of these abysmal things, and it was Heavenly.

  63. Cat says:

    I get migraine from onboard seatback screens, don’t know if its the blurriness, the wobbliness, or just the being on an airplane, but its a semi-death sentence for me to try to watch a film. Luckily i’d much rather read a book or think, instead.

  64. Greg says:

    In business and first I don’t see them going away but for short haul coach flights I’m fine with BYOD. But as you said they need to make some adjustments – power at every seat is a must, system must be reliable (but as others have mentioned, the seat back screen is unreliable too), and some new seats apparently have brackets you can put a phone or tablet in which if it works would be nice.

    • Randy says:

      Oh, yes, they are going away even in business/first (at least domestically, for now). AA announced last year that their new domestic planes would have no screens, just streaming Wi-Fi. And they will start ripping out the systems on the planes that do have them! Total crap.

  65. Susan says:

    I hope they don’t get rid of the seat-back panels. If they do I don’t know if I’ll be able to watch my favorite in flight show–the flight trajectory. I like tracking speed, altitude, etc. and logging that alongside what is going on outside –clouds, terrain, and the like.

    • Jennifer Moore says:

      I have become good friends with the Flight Aware app which I prefer to the airline tracker. And checking pilot reports on Turbulence Forecast.

  66. Carlos Si says:

    In an airline world where anything complimentary is being done away with, hope for the best. Of course with United on short-haul, you’ve got to pay for the IFE (at least on an ex-con 777 I flew on it was complimentary).

    If they’re truly concerned about cost and /thinking/ customers don’t want them (I certainly do; why not? I’d rather have it because of the reasons you listed), poll the flyers and see what they think. Personally, my laptop is too big to really fit comfortably in front of me. Mac folks are more advantaged by this (or perhaps if on the right airline, AAdvantaged).

    If it’s 50/50, perhaps make it an option to have IFE or not, go the way of LCCs…

  67. Speed says:

    I don’t generally trust surveys unless I’ve seen the questions as asked and heard the responses as stated. Here’s what I think might have happened …

    Question: Would you rather watch material supplied by the airline using a seatback screen or material supplied by the airline using your own screen?

    What the customer heard: Would you rather watch material supplied by the airline using a seatback screen or use your own screen to watch all the stuff you can watch at home or in your favorite coffee shop with a fast Wi-Fi internet connection?

  68. Rich says:

    Ever tried the antique IFE on the totally knackered 767s United flies between London and Chicago?

    The screens are about the size of an iPhone 4 and are unbelievably blurry. It hurts your eyes to try to make out what’s being shown. That’s when the system is working of course, which is rare. All the system really does is take up precious foot space with a control box the size of a mid 90s PC!

  69. Simon says:

    In theory BYO device streaming sounds great. In theory.

    In practice not so much. United’s silly system for example regularly craps out when about half the passengers onboard decide to use it, or you’re not seated at exactly the right seat or your device is not at the perfect angle, or the phase of the moon is wrong or whatever. It’s a cheap push to offload cost and effort onto passengers in order to squeeze another inch out of the pitch so we can be pushed even more onto one another. And yet some passengers are gullible enough to cheer this along. /duh

    • UncleStu says:

      “It’s a cheap push to offload cost and effort onto passengers”

      True, whatever the reason they try to convince us of.

      Follow the money.

  70. Allan says:

    Seat-back video screens are nice, but I’d rather have streaming to my own device if possible. In my experience, the interfaces on the seat-back video systems suck, and I’m stuck watching whatever I can find in their library (which is a pain because their terrible interfaces make it hard to search the library). If I could stream whatever I want over the internet using whatever service I already subscribe to, I’d gladly take that over seat back video. Just give me a way to charge my device.

    The last few flights I’ve had with seat back video, I’ve barely used it other than putting the map up on screen. Now that I can download video for offline use with different streaming services, I just download enough shows and movies to last for the flight. But this takes planning, and it would be easier if I could just stream whatever I want on the flight. Still better than hoping to get lucky with whatever is in the on board movie library.

    What would really be great is if there was a way to hang phones/tablets on the back of the seat in front of you so it doesn’t take up tray space.

    • Randy says:

      You will be able to stream the exact same content that would be on the IFE; you will not be able to stream content over the Internet. Internet access is usually quite expensive, far too slow to stream video, and subject to random outages during the flight.

  71. Ed says:

    Heh. In-flight entertainment? Nothing that flies to Dayton has in-flight entertainment. They don’t even have wifi…

  72. lmm says:

    I would rather have access to the same movies on my phone than on a seat-back screen. The touchscreens just aren’t reliable enough, and changing the volume is an exercise in frustration compared to my phone with actual buttons on. The screen space could be used for a deeper table.

    Of course what I expect will actually happen is a smaller or more expensive selection of movies, and thinner seats being used to cram an extra row in. But the theory is sound.

    • Patrick says:

      You would rather watch a movie on your PHONE than on a screen? That’s nuts.

      Also, I have not experienced the reliability issues you speak of, and I’ve never had trouble adjusting the volume. Occasionally there’s a temporary problem, but that’s fair trade off in lieu of the wires and general inconvenience of having to use my own device. And the tray space issue, for me, makes it a nonstarter.

      • lmm says:

        I bought the phone (S8+, 6.2 inch screen) with watching video at least partly in mind. I’m used to using it for that (e.g. I watched a TV episode on the tube (subway) on my way to work this morning). It’s a nice size for it IMO, and a higher resolution/quality screen than I’d expect an IFE system to have, even a new one.

        (Also gives me the option of putting it in a VR headset – I don’t have that much trust in fellow passengers on the tube but might be practical on a plane).

      • dave divelbiss says:

        Ha! you must not be around the Gen Z’s they do everything on phones, and watch a lot of movies/TV on their phones

        I too have a big phone, but have only watched a full movie on my phone once

        • Patrick says:

          Right, and so because nitwit teenagers are idiotic enough to watch movies on their telephones, the rest of the tens of millions of people who fly have to do the same?

          Many people seem to have this idea that so long as proverbial “young people” are okay with something, then the rest of civilization must learn to like it too.

  73. Colin Young says:

    I think you missed the main reason airlines probably want to move to streaming on your own device: rental charges for borrowing a tablet onboard, and charging for WiFi access…

    • Patrick says:

      Well, they could easily charge for seat-back access as well. Some do. Others, like Delta, used to charge for certain shows and movies, but then made the entire system free.