As Smartphones and Tablets Proliferate, Airlines Shed Seatback Screens in Favor of Bring-Your-Own-Device Policies

Business-class cabin on an American 777-300ER

By Jonathan Spira on 21 February 2017
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Four years ago, on American Airlines’ 2013 inaugural flight of its new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, which flew from Dallas to São Paulo, Brazil, I asked then CEO Tom Horton why he had bothered to include seatback screens throughout the aircraft. He proudly pointed out all of the high-tech features of the aircraft including the cool remote control in the Flagship Suite first-class cabin that controlled the 17” display and had a small video screen of its own. While most everyone on the inaugural flight was playing with the in-flight entertainment system, that seemed to be because of the novelty of it all. However, on almost every subsequent flight I have been on I found an increasing number of people using their own smartphones, laptops, or tablets to provide in-flight entertainment.

Not having a wired in-flight entertainment system keeps costs down and lowers the weight of the plane significantly, thereby saving fuel.

Indeed, back in 2011, American took two steps in this direction, although removing all screens was probably not on the minds of management at the time. American removed video tape-based systems (passengers in first were given a selection of movies on tape, and would then insert the cartridge into a slot at their seat) and began to provide Samsung Galaxy Tab tablets with previously downloaded content on many flights. American, while not the first to hand out a tablet, was the first to hand out a branded tablet.

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Seatback screens on an American Airlines 777-300ER

Also in 2011, American began to install Gogo’s Vision video-streaming product on all of its Boeing 767-200s, which, at the time, it used on its premium transcon routes linking New York with San Francisco and Los Angeles. This move represented one of the earliest efforts to allow passengers to stream in-flight movies to their own devices on demand.

All this emphasis on in-flight entertainment systems was a mystery to me long before 2011. I had been bringing my own movies, first on my IBM ThinkPad and later on my MacBook and iPad, along with my own noise-cancelling headphones, for as long as I can remember.


While TWA was the first carrier to regularly offer in-fight movies, starting in 1961 with the somewhat risqué “By Love Possessed” starring Lana Turner (pneumatic headsets followed in 1963), in-flight movies date back to the 1920s, when Aeromarine Airways screened “Howdy Chicago” for 11 passengers in a Curtiss F-5-L flying boat as part of the city’s Pageant of Progress.

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