American Thinks In-Seat Screens Aren’t Needed on Domestic Flights; I Flip Flop on the Issue

American is getting closer to taking delivery of its first 737 MAX (4 will be coming in the second half of this year), and it is starting to talk about what it’ll look like on the inside. It is now official that the airline will not install in-seat video on these airplanes. Over the years, I’ve alternated from thinking in-seat video is good to thinking it’s not needed. I can’t make up my mind, and I continue to waffle today.

For American this is no surprise. The old US Airways management team used to think that all you needed was wifi. Even the overhead screens on US Airways domestic aircraft were pulled out and the power outlets deactivated. But at the new American the team realized it was a different kind of airline and needed further review. The signs were there, however, that we wouldn’t be seeing screens for much longer. Most notably, the pre-merger American A319s came with screens, but when the post-merger team decided to refurbish the US Airways A319s to match the American configuration, they left the screens off. So hearing that this is a cohesive plan for future deliveries isn’t a surprise.

But isn’t American still taking delivery of airplanes with in-seat screens today? Yep. In fact, there are 40 more A321s and 737-800s coming in the door this year that’ll be fully-equipped. This, however, is all from that mega-order that American placed before the merger. I was told early-on that it’s not easy to change the interior configuration on existing orders. I assume that’s why these still keep coming in the way they do.

There’s one important point of clarification here. Unlike United which thought screens weren’t needed on the 747, American still sees them as important on long-haul widebodies (though it won’t refit the soon-to-retire 767s). This change is just on narrowbodies. But if screens aren’t necessary, what is? The American promise is this:

  • Satellite internet access fast enough to allow you to stream Netflix, Amazon, etc.
  • Free streaming movies and music to your own device
  • Free live TV on your own device
  • Gate-to-gate access, no waiting until 10,000 feet
  • 110V power outlet for each seat

The new MAXs will even be equipped with an iPad holder in the seat in front to make it easier to watch content. (I have no clue how versatile that’ll be to work with non-iPads.)

When you put it that way, this does sound more than adequate, right? And the cherry on top is that those bulky boxes blocking your feet in each row will finally go away. Huzzah. But there are issues here.

First, I say this sounds great, but then every time I fly JetBlue, I’m reminded how much I love a second screen. It is awesome to be able to watch television or a movie in the background while working on my laptop. This is indeed a first world problem. Can I be content without the screen? Sure. But I kind of want it to feel like it is when I’m at home. That makes me greedy, but hey, why not?

The thing is, I don’t think it’ll sway my purchase decision, at least not nearly as much as fast wifi does, and that’s what the airline cares about. Besides, if my option is seatback television and slow internet (Virgin America, Delta for now) or no television and fast internet on American, I’ll pick American.

The bigger issue, however, isn’t so easy to resolve. This is a nice standard to push for, but it’s not based in reality today. American still has a motley group of interior configurations and the customer experience is terribly inconsistent. The wifi project is going ahead full-steam. By next summer (2018), half the fleet will have the fast satellite wifi installed. The other half will be done by the end of 2019. Presumably they’ll start with the 737s that have the most awful, slow internet connections today, but I don’t know for sure.

But even beyond the wifi situation, it’s still a mess. I mean, look at the fleet today.

  • Embraer 190 (20 airplanes) – none have power, none with screens
  • A319 (125 airplanes) – all have power, 32 with screens, 93 without screens
  • MD-80s (57 airplanes) – all have completely useless DC power (cigarette lighter), none with screens
  • A320 (51 airplanes) – none have power, none with screens
  • 737-800 (284 airplanes) – 221 have power for 2 of every 3 seats and overhead screens, 63 have power and screens in-seat
  • 757-200 (51 airplanes) – some have scattered DC power in economy but most don’t, all have overhead screens
  • A321 (199 airplanes) – 78 have power and screens in-seat, 121 have no power and no screens

Talk about inconsistency. Now over the next few years, the Embraer 190s and MD-80s go away. The 757s will keep shrinking and fly pretty much only medium-haul overwater routes. But that still means there are a bunch of A319/A320/737/A321 aircraft that need some major work to get them up to speed. It’s not clear how soon that’ll happen, but in my mind, if this is going to be the product American wants to put forward, it needs to make it happen sooner rather than later.

Of course, if I happen to get on an airplane that has an in-seat screen on top of everything else, I’m not going to complain. And so far, American hasn’t decided to pull those screens out, but it might do so in the future. Still, I look forward to the day when American actually puts forth a consistent onboard experience. It is not there today.

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