Major Airlines Remove Seatback Devices

If you’ve ever been on a Southwest Airlines flight, chances are your favorite feature was the low cost of the ticket or (if you’re an early bird) the unreserved seating—but probably not the absence of a seatback screen. Frequent fliers had better power up those devices or stock up on reading material; American, United and Alaska Airlines are all removing screens from most of their medium-range aircraft.

There are numerous factors driving the change. No screens means less weight, which translates to fuel economy. Seatback devices are also quickly dated, as they’re nearly impossible to replace as quickly as technology develops. Additionally, this year’s J.D. Power consumer report on airline satisfaction listed in-flight services (and food, obviously) as areas across the board in which consumers are least satisfied with their sky-high experience. However, the most prominent reason for retiring seatback entertainment is probably what you’re currently looking at.

Technically, It’s Personal 

Your personal device as a central hub of operations is quickly becoming ubiquitous, and not just in the hotel industry. Be it smart phone, laptop or tablet, customers come aboard with personal devices—screens provided at no installation or maintenance costs to the airline. Instead of inducing a never-ending headache by updating seatback devices that frankly aggravate customers as often as they delight, some airlines are focusing on increasing bandwidth and wi-fi capabilities instead, offering free content streaming to passengers.

Delta Does Both

Delta’s approach is a product of their in-house start-up Delta Flight Products, formed in 2016 to focus innovation on aircraft interior technologies with applications ranging from seatback services to seat construction. They’ve committed to upgrading in-flight devices –you may already have seen the new pop-out tablets, providing flexible use and easier upgradability. They’re also running tests onboard with a mission to provide free, high-speed Wi-Fi to all passengers within the next year or two.

Coming to a Seatback Near You

For the time being, it’s a grab bag out there. American, Alaska and United may retain the soon-to-be relics on some cross-country domestic flights, but are pruning old planes and ordering new aircraft sans screens. It’s just another day of southern charm and cheap fare at Southwest, who of course didn’t indulge our screen-addiction from the start. JetBlue, always a contrarian, has decided to go high-def rather than ditching: Their current retrofitting of all Airbus A320 planes includes upgraded touchscreen displays.

Your best bet may be to abide by the Boy Scout motto and be prepared. Manage expectations and be thankful that the trade-off is more USB outlets to self-power your Netflix binge – just don’t forget that power cord.