American Airlines recently announced that their new fleet of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft will not be equipped with backseat video screens.

The U.S. carrier has explained their omission from the aircraft by claiming that 90 percent of passengers are already using tablets, laptops or smartphones in-flight, and that few would miss the screens at all.

Some cynical airline industry observers, however, suggest the real reason is likely more to do with American Airlines attempting to reduce costs and increase profits.

A Brief History of In-Flight Entertainment

In-flight movies have featured on board most airlines since the 1960s, with individual seatback video screens making their debut a few decades later. Initially, the individual screens were more for convenience, allowing passengers to comfortably watch the onboard movie without having to peer at the bulkhead wall at the front of the cabin or a monitor hanging from the ceiling.

At a time when many people had only half a dozen television channels at home, having only one movie onboard a flight was fine. But once cable TV became common and people could choose from dozens of programs at home, a single movie for everyone wasn’t going to cut it.

As technology improved, airlines adopted personal entertainment systems that allowed passengers to select their own video entertainment from an extensive onboard library of movies, TV shows and flight maps. A backseat video screen and comprehensive viewing selection soon became a selling feature for many scheduled carriers.

The American Way

American Airlines have said they will continue to improve their in-flight Internet service and allow passengers to wirelessly access the airline’s entertainment library free of charge via their own devices. However, anyone who wishes to access the World Wide Web to actually surf the Internet on their flights will have to pay the usual airborne fees for satellite Internet connection—and those fees are often not cheap!

Right now, only the airline’s new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft—which will begin to enter service later this year—will be screenless. The rest of the airline’s fleet (including the current generation Boeing 737s) will continue to feature backseat entertainment systems.

The new MAX aircraft has been designed by Boeing as a more fuel-efficient variant of the original 737 that entered service in the late 1960s. With fuel being most airlines’ single biggest expense on any given flight, and overall weight being the biggest factor in fuel consumption, stripping out the screens, wiring and control system would reduce the aircraft’s overall weight and further improve that efficiency.

In addition, airlines would immediately and considerably save costs by not installing the equipment in the first place.

Backseat screens are common on most airlines, especially on longer routes, but less common on charter airlines and budget carriers that have long attempted to minimize costs and pass the savings to their customers. However, the addition of onboard Wi-Fi is still relatively recent, and American Airlines is just the latest airline to take the Wi-Fi entertainment route.

Several years ago, United Airlines made the decision not to include backseat screens onboard their single-aisle aircraft (including the Boeing 737-900) in favour of improved Wi-Fi, while JetBlue Airways, Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines are developing better Internet access either instead of backseat screens or in addition to them.

The Cost of In-Flight Wi-Fi

As airlines continue to introduce Wi-Fi access, some carriers have taken the process a step further by offering tablets to passengers who aren’t carrying their own devices. For a fee, of course.

And while the internal Wi-Fi access may be free, relatively few carriers offer free external Wi-Fi, and fliers are wise to carefully read the fine print on any onboard data packages that airlines might offer.

It’s a lesson one Canadian traveller learned the hard way, just a couple of years ago.

While on a Singapore Airlines flight from London to Singapore, entrepreneur Jeremy Gutsche purchased a 30MB package for $28.99 to get work done during the long journey. Though aware he would be charged for extra bandwidth, he was shocked at the flight’s end to discover that OnAir, Singapore Airline’s Wi-Fi provider, had charged him $1,171 for his extra use.

And so, while it seems likely that the availability of on-demand Wi-Fi will continue to increase and backseat video screens may eventually disappear, it’s unlikely that any considerable savings from these changes will be passed down to the passenger.

It’s buyer beware!

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