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Dear Airlines: Please Don’t Take Away Our Video Screens!

Korean Air seat-back video.   Author’s photo.

January 9, 2017

FOR TWO DECADES NOW, seat-back video has been the standard for inflight entertainment. Passengers the world over have grown accustomed to watching movies and shows on the screen in front of them. As well they should; it’s a fantastic amenity. I’ll go so far as to say that it’s the single greatest advent in onboard service in the past fifty years. Onboard comfort is all about the art of distraction, and nothing is a better distraction than being able to binge-watch your favorite TV series or catch a few films.

We’ve come a long way. Flyers of a certain age will remember “the in flight movie,” projected onto a scratched-up bulkhead screen. For the sound, you’d plug a bulky, stethoscope-style headset into the armrest. The picture was always blurry and the audio sounded like it was being transmitted from a submarine. Which usually was fine, because they rarely showed anything you wanted to watch in the first place. Today, passengers can choose between dozens or even hundreds of on-demand options. You can start, stop, pause, rewind…. In first or business class, with oversized screens and noise-reduction headsets, you essentially have your own personal theater. Indeed, one of my favorite guilty pleasures in life is sitting in an airline seat with a meal and a glass of wine, watching something fun on my screen.

Yet the days of the seat-back screen might be numbered. One of the big airline stories making the rounds of late describes how carriers are planning to do away with them. The future of inflight entertainment, we are told, is turning instead to wi-fi streaming, whereby passengers can stream shows and movies directly onto their own laptops, tablets or mobile phones.

Emirates first class suite.   Author’s photo.

And, we keep hearing, this isn’t just something the airlines want. Supposedly it’s what their customers want as well. People find the seat-back screens old-fashioned, or uncool — or something. They want streaming video instead.

I’m not buying it. Carriers might wish this were the case, but count me among those who don’t believe it. I suspect the media is simply repeating unchecked what airlines are telling them. I don’t believe it because it doesn’t make sense: With a seat-back screen, you plug in your earphones and go. There are no power issues, no extra cords or wires, and the space in front of you is kept clear for eating, drinking, or whatever. Watching with your own device is a lot more cumbersome. There are the sign-on and streaming settings to configure, for starters. Then, once you’re watching, you’ve got battery drain to deal with, and/or you’ll need to hook a power cord into an AC outlet, provided your seat has one. Also, tablet and smartphone screens are often smaller than the seat-back kind. And, if you’re in economy class, you’ll be using up pretty all of the available tray-table space, making it impossible to enjoy a meal while you’re watching.

Not to mention the recline hazard: Any time you’ve got your laptop propped on your tray, you run the risk of it being crushed when the person in front of you comes hauling back without warning, jamming the screen between the tray and the seat-back (see photo below).

Sure, in-seat systems are heavy and expensive — upwards of $10,000 per seat. But all airplane components are expensive, and the typical screen, over the course of its lifespan, will have entertained thousands of passengers. They’re reliable, convenient, and just so downright useful.

Am I missing something? If you feel that I’m wrong or misguided, please weigh in below.

Hazardous viewing on China Airlines.   Author’s photo.

Now, I have to confess, I sometimes switch off my screen and watch something pre-downloaded on my Macbook instead. I don’t like doing this, for the reasons I just listed, but once in a while there just isn’t anything in the carrier’s library that I want to see. Thus the big caveat in my argument is that an airline needs a decent IFE system to begin with — one that’s easy to navigate, has a wide-enough variety to pick from, and has the hardware (i.e. a big enough screen) to go with it. To that last point, the tiny four or five-inch screens that some airlines have stuck with simply don’t do the trick.

There’s a lot of variation here. My sampling is by no means comprehensive, but I’ve flown a good number of carriers and I have my favorites:

For sheer volume, from blockbusters to Bollywood to documentaries to pop music, nothing comes close to Emirates’ “ICE” system (the letters stand for information, communications, and entertainment). Rest assured you’ll find something to watch or listen to, and the screens in all cabins are huge. The trouble with the Emirates system, however, is that it’s maybe too big for its own good. The ICE guide — a booklet in your seat pocket — is thicker than a novel and confusingly organized; sifting through it all — there are thousands of channels, including many Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and Urdu movies that seem a bit superfluous — can be taxing.

Other airlines have lots to pick from but a clunky user interface. Qatar Airways’ IFE, for example, is appallingly tedious to navigate. Still others have decent usability but limited choices.

My vote for the best all-around system? Delta Air Lines. Theirs is a Panasonic-based platform that is both user-friendly and packed with movies and shows. The layout and navigation functions are the cleanest and most intuitive I’ve seen, and there’s a more than ample, eclectic selection of films and shows. (The one catch is that when clicking into either the TV or movie sections, the default screen shows only the newest additions. Look for the drop-down menu that allows you to access the entire “A-to-Z” archive.) Over the past few years I’ve flown with Emirates, Qatar, Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, Thai, and a dozen or so others. Delta’s system beats all of them.

I just I hope we get to keep watching it seat-back style. Whichever airline we’re talking about, the idea of fumbling around with a computer or an iPad, with wires all over the place and all my personal space taken up, is not a welcome change.

Moving map on Delta’s outstanding IFE.   Author’s photo.

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