In a sign of the times, American Airlines said Tuesday it will not install in-seat entertainment screens on the next-generation Boeing 737s that start arriving later this year — aircraft that should be deployed mostly within North America.
Instead, on its Boeing 737Max planes, American will offer free entertainment passengers can watch on their mobile phones, tablets, and laptop computers. American will give travelers access to a library of movies and television shows, as well as live TV. If customers buy Internet, they’ll be able to stream content from sites like Amazon and Netflix, as the new planes will have satellite internet from ViaSat much faster than today’s Gogo option.
The airline is calculating that’s a better move than installing technology that will be “obsolete” in a few years. American has ordered 100 737 Max aircraft, with 60 options.
“More than 90 percent of our passengers already bring a device or screen with them when they fly,” American told employees in a message. “Those phones and tablets are continually upgraded, they’re easy to use, and most importantly they are the technology that our customers have chosen.”
American is not the first U.S. airline to make this decision. For several years, United Airlines has been adding new Boeing 737-900s that have streaming entertainment and WiFi but not in-seat screens. Alaska Airlines also exclusively delivers movies and TV shows to passenger devices.
Forgoing in-seat screens tends save airlines money, in part because embedded systems add a considerable weight, requiring planes to burn more fuel. But some airlines — notably JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines — have kept them for domestic flights for a couple of reasons. First, not every passenger brings a device. And second, the airlines say many passengers prefer having two screens on aircraft, just as at home. Passengers might use a phone to browse the internet, while watching movies on an in-seat screen.
American was a late-comer to embedded screens for domestic flights. It only started taking deliveries of Boeing 737s and Airbus A320 family aircraft with screens in 2013, a period in which the airline was trying to improve its image while it prepared to exit bankruptcy protection.
US Airways, which merged with American in 2013, did not have in-seat screens on its narrow-body aircraft.
American had already committed to adding in-seat screens for the 40 new Boeing 737s and Airbus A321s arriving this year, and the airline said those planes will still receive the technology.
American also told employees it will continue to install in-seat entertainment on larger aircraft flying longer international routes. It is also committed to keeping screens on the specially-configuring A321s flying from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
One problem with streaming entertainment is that it sometimes requires passengers to have enough battery to last an entire flight. To try to fix that problem, American is adding power at every seat on much of its fleet. It said Tuesday that half of its narrowbody fleet should have power by the end of next year, and 85 percent of planes should have it by the end of 2020.