Who wants a built-in TV on an airplane?

13 May 2013

The New York Times recently ran a story about changes in the airline industry in recent years. A few highlights:

But most have begun putting Wi-Fi and individual televisions aboard their planes, installing more comfortable seats for business passengers and investing in mobile technology that gives passengers more control over their travel plans.


Delta also spent $140 million over two years to develop a new Web site, which it unveiled last year. The site allows the airline to sell more services to passengers, including upgrades to premium seats, or booking hotel rooms or cars. At a conference last year, one executive compared the company’s aims to something Amazon has on its Web site — the ability to bundle offers or suggest products based on a passenger’s history and preferences.

I recently flew from Seattle to Chicago on United on a Boeing 737-800, which has 126 standard coach seats. Every one of those seats was equipped with a display hooked up to DirecTV. Only a couple people, from what I saw, took advantage of the programming and watched something during the 5-hour flight. What most people did was ignore their display without turning it off, leaving it to loop endlessly over the 5-minute DirecTV marketing pitch.

I have no figures, but how much might it cost an airline to install and maintain these individual displays? Add on the costs to get the content, plus the cheap headphones most airlines give passengers these days, and you’re wasting a bunch of money on something that barely anyone wants. I, like everyone else, travel with my phone, which has all my music on it, and my headphones. And, like many people, I travel with my iPad. It seems to me that having good Wi-Fi on the plane is orders of magnitude better than having a personal display, because I can simply load Netflix on my iPad. (Even assuming a lack of Netflix-capable WiFi, I’d rather watch a downloaded movie on my retina-display iPad than the low-quality airline display.)

Everything the Times article cites as progress—WiFi, site redesigns, better mobile apps—are good things. Except the seat displays. As tech has become more personalized, especially with the popularity of tablets, we’re getting more accustomed to carrying our entertainment around with us. In that world, the airlines would be better off ditching the seat displays, the awful headphones, and the content deals. Instead, they should invest in power outlets and Wi-Fi.