Is IFE really all that important to passengers?

When I read (or write) reviews of flights there is nearly always a section about the in-flight entertainment system. Airlines are constantly innovating on this front, with on-demand programming, streaming wireless content and ever larger screens and content collections. At the same time, however, it seems that many passengers don’t actually care. Or, more pointedly, they care about other things a lot more.

The Sydney Morning Herald has an article out this week asking passengers whether they care more about IFE or personal space on the plane. The results are nearly unanimous: personal space wins nearly every time. Even more telling are the comments offered up on the site. Passengers are desperate for more personal space.

But reading both the article and the comments also exposes the sad truth as to why the airlines are pursuing the path they have. Despite claims that passengers are desperate for more room it also turns out that, generally speaking, they aren’t usually willing to pay for it.

From the article:

“It’s of more value for an airline to add two rows worth of seats and have a good inflight entertainment system rather than do the opposite and give passengers more legroom,” [Aviation reporter Mary] Kirby told Australian online magazine, Technology Spectator. … “It’s all about distracting the brain from the pain.”

And from the comments section:

For me ticket price is the biggest factor. I figure, I can put up with discomfort for 12-24 hours, if it means that I get to have a couple of weeks of holiday, but if prices are too high, then I’m not going anywhere.

Of course the airlines aren’t listening. They keep cutting legroom, we keep buying tickets. There is no incentive for them to stop it.

Economy class travel is like flying in a coffin these days. I bring my own food and entertainment devices because the airline stuff is terrible, but there isn’t much you can do about the space when all they’re trying to do is upsell you to first/business.

Airlines have found that the majority of people don’t want to pay extra for more room (that’s why there’s less business and first class seats on the plane). It’s an inverse relationship: more seats = lower prices. If the airlines remove a couple of rows of economy (therefore giving everyone some additional leg room), there are less seats to sell and the overall price of the remaining seats goes up. But all those people who judge on price alone, then don’t buy the seats.

So the customers have figured out that the airlines aren’t listening to the complaints, but why should they when the planes are flying more full than ever?

I had a similar discussion with a number of travel writers last week while in Germany for the inaugural Lufthansa 747-8i flight. I made the argument that there is no reason for the airlines to shy away from things like 3-4-3 on the 747 or 3-3-3 on the 787 or even 3-4-3 on the 777. After all, passengers are still buying the seats. Yes, they may complain about the comfort factor. They may even swear off flying that airline again. But when the time comes to buy the next ticket it turns out all those protests were for naught; the fare still is the trump card.

Once fare and schedule are equal the other bits start to come in to play. There is a burgeoning industry of online tools (e.g. RouteHappy) and communities (MilePoint and FlyerTalk are two of the biggest) where passengers can work together to figure out what the best options are for any particular trip. At the same time, however, those conversations are still playing second fiddle to price.

So, while passengers are complaining about the seat comfort the airlines are doing what they can to distract from the pain. And IFE seems to be the way that’s happening. We don’t have to like it, but that definitely is the way the industry in treating the situation.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I used to think it was 90% useless, because typically I sleep most of the flight. On a LAX-IAD flight a few months ago we were on a new UA 777, so I had AVOD, and it was great because there were plenty of options, quite a few of which I liked. Not only did this give me a reason to stay up, but I was able to work the whole way. I have had a few flights since then, with no AVOD on personal TVs and have survived. So while I love it, it’s not a deal breaker, and that seems to be the case for most, as I looked around the cabin there were not many people using it, maybe half.

  2. I am not sure if you have ever heard about the story of Spring Airlines in China. It is a small, low cost airline. The company once proposed to have a no-seat setup in their airline so they can stuff in 40% more customers in their plane. All customers will be standing in the plane when travelling. The proposal was rejected due to obvious safety reason, but one can see the point how crazy airline companies can go.

  3. Of course IFE is important. Would you rather sit on a 12 hour flight with no IFE but 4 extra inches of legroom, or one with IFE? I’d much rather choose the IFE.

    Either way you will be uncomfortable. No coach seat is actually decent. IFE does help distract you, and makes the flight go much faster. I will purposefully not fly on intl flights without IFE.

    1. Well, Tyler, I think you’ve just proven the point: It really is a personal decision.

      I’d take the 4″ of leg room every day over better IFE.

  4. Totally personal decision – agreed. I’d go for the extra space. Note that you can bring your own IFE, but you can’t create extra space.

  5. In the front cabin, it is an absolute must on any flight over 3 hours.

    In coach? 5+ hours maybe.

    1. So, DebonaireTraveleur, you think good IFE is more important when you already have more personal space?? Isn’t that just being greedy?? 😉

  6. I really don’t care about the IFE at all. Leg room and seat comfort are my primary concern, and I’ll pay more to get those.

    If there is IFE, I want music channels. I don’t bring my own device. That’s one thing I dislike about the DTV system- no music channels.

  7. My IFE is usually a book. I could care less about most other forms of IFE (although inflight wifi is pretty nice).

  8. I’m with extra space (not just length, but also width) over IFE. If the flight’s over 5 hours, I’d rather have power and extra space over IFE. I’m self-contained entertainment-wise.

  9. Thanks so much for the Routehappy shout out Seth. Interesting arguments IFE vs. seat comfort–definitely a personal preference. That’s why we’re working hard to let flyers know exactly what they can expect on every flight–that way flyers can align their personal preferences with airline offerings.

  10. People bring their own entertainment anyways. Just give me power at my seat and I’ll make it work.

    I perhaps have flown in a middle seat more often than most and survived even at 6’1″.

    Good post.

  11. But for those people willing to pay for upgrades like Economy Plus on United it means that there are usually seats available. I have gravitated between Silver and Gold on USAirways for the last few years and I have never received a free upgrade so I just started buying them.

    I prefer my comfort and on UAL from IAD-YYZ and LAS-Vancouver I was able to upgrade to 1st or economy plus at minimal cost. On my recent trips (6 this month) every single flight was completely full and first class was truly a relief.

    I recall AA having the extra leg room several years ago and they added extra seats shortly after they decided nobody cared or just wanted the revenue.

    When I travel for business I always upgrade and my colleagues are shocked that I put out an extra $100 for a flight. To me the extra room is always worth it.

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