Are in-seat entertainment screens ready to disappear?


Are we approaching an era where in-seat entertainment screens are a relic of the past? Has the time come for airlines to rip them out and save the carrying costs, leveraging customers own devices at the new core of the in-flight entertainment passenger experience? United Airlines arguably believes the answer is a resounding yes, at least for the short-haul/regional market.

The carrier is investing in wifi-based streaming media solutions with partners Panasonic and Thales/LiveTV offering stored content available to watch on a properly equipped (i.e. DRM-compliant) device for its entire fleet. And United is even going so far as working with LiveTV to get the DIRECTV product into the streaming solution, allowing for any of the 100+ channels currently on the in-seat TV systems to be available via a BYOD streaming app on its 737 fleet of 200+ aircraft. Delta and American Airlines are similarly in on the game, investing heavily with their in-flight connectivity partner Gogo to offer a broad selection of content via streaming.

Are the days numbered for these in-seat entertainment screens?
Are the days numbered for these in-seat entertainment screens? A LiveTV test system operating in the company’s Melbourne, Florida offices.

So the in-seat screen is dead, right? Not so fast says Glen Latta, president of Thales’ LiveTV unit. Even as the company works to build out a solution to meet United’s desired configuration of no in-seat screens Latta believes strongly in the future of the in-seat screen. Because, like in most business decisions, it follows the money. Latta explained his view of the market in a recent interview,

Why would a company not want to put a screen in the seat-back? It is always money or cost to carry. So if it was light enough and you generated enough additional ancillary revenue everybody would put a screen in the seatback. With this new technology that we’re using we believe we can have a last mile that is lightweight enough and low cost enough that no airline would refuse to put it in the seat.

Indeed, controlling costs is the main reason to not install the screens. They are not cheap to begin with and the cost to carry that weight around on every flight is very real. But at some point Latta believes that the ability to sell various services or products through the screens outweighs the carrying cost, assuming the screens can be made light enough and cheap enough. And, not surprisingly, Latta believes that his company has found a way to meet that cost point.

The ancillary revenue options are broad, ranging from pay-per-view movies and TV options to simply broadcasting commercials to passengers before the flight departs. LiveTV also has a new product out with JetBlue offering stored magazine content accessible via the screens. It is free on JetBlue today but that is another type of content which could be monetized.

The opportunities to make money off the in-seat screens are very real, but it does depend on having the cost side of the equation low enough to satisfy airline bean-counters; that’s rarely an easy task. Thales/LiveTV believes it has the right product to come in cheap enough to an airline. And, just in case the carrier still refuses, the streaming BYOD solution is there, too.

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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, LinkedIn and .

14 Comments

  1. Do you know how much I hate it when the guy behind me keeps pounding the screen, changing the channels, while I’m trying to nap?

    1. Exactly. Agree 100% in the seat pokers. Remove them all. It’s freaking 2014…. It’s not hard to bring your own IFE on your own phone or tablet.

      1. They should not be touch screen for that very reason. They should operate by a remote control exclusively. But I do check the menus and often see something that interests me that I don’t have on my own device. It’s a chance to sample something else, so I do favor keeping them.

  2. What I basically want:
    – A power port.
    – Nothing intruding the space below the seat in front of me (like an entertainment box).

    If you also give my cheap, reliable internet I’m a happy camper. Beyond this, whether or not I have a TV in front of me doesn’t change anything (although Michael has a good point about the screen pounders).

  3. I have a hard time believing Thales can make the numbers work on the TV. Maybe thirty years from now the TVs will way only a few pounds and will be a minimal weight addition but in the short run it is hard to see the TVs and the power/comm lines needed to run them in each seat, not causing a significant weight increase. The TVs would need to produce a lot of ancillary revenue to make up for installation cost and extra fuel burn. Also, the article didnt discuss is maintanence. After a few years of heavy use these TVs start to break….just look at the state of Jetblue TVs now verus five years ago. With passengers bringing in their own devices, the airline would not have the responsibility or cost of keeping every TV and headphone jack in working order.

  4. I think there is a market for both, streaming AND screens for most airlines: streaming for short-haul flights and low-cost economy on long-haul flights, nice, big screens for premium economy and up on long haul flights. Having a large, separate screen is much more comfortable than holding a tablet, for example during meals, and a better viewing experience.
    LCCs will probably make do with streaming (if anything) for a while: Even if/when the cheap screens arrive, they are not likely to replace their seats on recently bought planes…

  5. What is “a last mile” Latta references in the quote?

    Streaming is just a wireless connection. You could stream to the device of your choice or a device attached to the seat in front of you or wherever.

    The “TV’ already weighs less than a pound. An iPad weighs less than a pound.

    I prefer to watch movies on domestic flights on my iPad. I would like a place to hang or attach with velcro.

    1. Last mile is the connection from the head-end server on board to the screens. And, yes, they can stream that last mile to those in-seat screens if they want but the devices need power anyways so there is already wiring going in for that. Latta seems convinced that it is cheaper (if not lighter) to just use regular wiring for the data transmission than to go wireless.

      As for the weight of the in-seat screens, I’ve held a few before at trade shows and such. Not many of them are under a pound these days.

      1. Not many are under a pound now, but it certainly seems like it should be feasible to make one that is. I mean, the technology obviously exists–you could take an iPad, put it in a mount, run a standard Lightning cable to it, and get the content wirelessly and that whole thing would be under a pound. So if that’s possible, why is it so hard for someone in the industry to create a product that’s something along those lines? It’s 2014–there should be no need for thick, heavy screens and big, bulky entertainment boxes under the seats housing video converters and PSUs and whatever.

        1. What happens when your face crashes into an iPad screen with a force of 16G?

          If it shatters and you’ve got glass in your face then that’s a problem. The FAA requires a Head Injury Criteria (HIC) test for all seats installed – including the IFE systems – and looks very carefully at the results. If the 16G HIC test results in injuries to the passenger there’s a pretty good chance that configuration will not be permitted on the plane.

          Lufthansa Technik seems to thing they can put a more durable sliding protective screen over the consumer-grade tablets and solve the HIC test problem but they’ve not been certified yet.

          More on HIC tests:
          http://lessonslearned.faa.gov/Avianca52/HIC_test_top_pop_up.htm
          http://www.boeing.com/commercial/aeromagazine/articles/2011_q4/2/

          Also, the iPad Air 2 is 0.96 pounds before anything else is added to it; the mini is 0.73 pounds. And that’s before it is mounted or powered. Getting below 1 pound is not trivial.

          1. I didn’t say that they *should* just mount iPads; I said that the technology to do it thin and light already exists in consumer form, so it really shouldn’t be that hard to extend that to an industry-specific format. Obviously there are some special challenges to overcome in the aviation industry, but I suspect the reason something better doesn’t exist is simply because no one has wanted to invest in its development and creation without some assurance that the product will be widely adopted, not because there’s any inherent inability to do it.

            It’s not just the aviation industry that I roll my eyes at here, though. I say the same thing about in-car nav/audio touch-screen interfaces. They all universally suck. There’s no inherent reason that a touchscreen interface should have slow response times and be unintuitively laid out–Apple, Google, MS, and others have all proven that doesn’t need to be the case.

          2. The technology exists but not in a manner which is sufficiently strong to withstand the testing standards. And that really does matter. It drives up weight and price.

            Fixing the UI is child’s play compared to solving the HIC test problem. Though that Lufthansa option will be interesting to watch.

  6. Carriers will remove the seatback screens and let you bring your own device on-board. Then they will charge you a fee to bring the device. Then, considering that the seatback is thinner without a screen in it, they will further reduce seat pitch to 26 inches.

    Then, they will remove the co-pilot, as the pilot will become only a backup fo the computer actually doing the flying.

    Then, the single-engine intercontinental plane will be upon us, as it is obvious that with a single engine, the already-low risk of engine failure is cut in half. ETOPS will become ESOPS, with 360 minutes a the default value.

    Then…

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