Will the days of keeping yourself (and your fidgety children) occupied with a free movie marathon on a long flight soon be over?
Airlines are continually looking at new ways to reduce costs, and to trim their fuel bill by cutting weight and bulk. Travellers are losing legroom, seats are getting smaller, and traditional airlines like BA have even scrapped meals on short-haul flights. Now it's seat-back screens, the cornerstone of in-flight entertainment for a generation, that are facing the chop.
American Airlines, the world largest carrier, as well as its US rival United, are among the latest to ditch the screens. Their new short-haul aircraft will go without, and instead passengers will be offered content that can be streamed on board, free of charge, using their own personal electronic devices.
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Equipping planes with traditional in-flight entertainment is a costly business. According to one estimate, seat-back screens cost £2.3 million per plane, while the weight of cabling required for the system costs £71,500 in extra fuel per year for every aircraft – based on a Boeing 767 aircraft with 260 seats. And those expensive screens can soon become technologically obsolete compared to the latest devices passengers bring on board to watch films and entertainment.
Peter Ingram, the chief commercial officer of Hawaiian Airlines, which recently scrapped seat-back screens on its new A321 neo aircraft, told Traveller: “With the 321, we recognised a couple of things that are changing in the environment around us that really informed our decision. The majority of people are showing up with a device of their own – and they're ignoring the devices we offer.”
American Airlines, United and Hawaiian aren’t the first to rethink their in-flight entertainment policy. Back in 2015, Canada’s WestJet Airlines began phasing out its seat-back screens and installed USB charge points to help accommodate the 75 per cent of passengers who were reported to be bringing their own devices.
This week WestJet also announced it would be installing a new in-flight entertainment system that would offer free content, as well as paid internet access, that could be accessed from passengers’ own smart devices including phones, tablets and laptops. The system would be rolled out “across our jet fleet, so screens will not be needed,” a spokesperson for the airline told The Star.
While these North American carriers are still providing free in-flight entertainment, some airlines, including low-cost Jetstar and Virgin Australia, are scrapping seat-back screens and charging passengers to access the alternative. Jetstar, for example, charges passengers AUS$10 (£5.70) to watch its films on board using their own device.
Will other airlines follow suit?
Norwegian, Europe’s third largest low-cost airline, which provides 11-inch seat-back screens on its 787 Dreamliner aircraft, and will be introducing Wi-Fi on its long-haul flights later this year, has confirmed it has no plans to remove them.
“With our plans this year to introduce Wi-Fi on our 787 Dreamliner and 737 MAX aircraft and adding 60 per cent more seats each equipped with 11-inch seat-back screens to our new Premium cabin, we remain committed to offering in-flight entertainment,” the airline said.
Singapore Airlines, the world's best airline according to Telegraph Travel readers, also confirmed its seat-back monitors will remain in place. It also confirmed it is exploring how wearable technology could be offered to deliver in-flight entertainment.
Last September, Virgin Atlantic introduced Wi-Fi on all of its flights, including ones operated by its partner carrier Delta Air Lines. This makes it the first airline in Europe to offer in-flight Wi-Fi across its entire fleet of 39 aircraft, with passengers able to remain connected shortly after take-off until shortly before landing.
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"In-flight entertainment remains a popular part of long-haul flying, and our customers really value the time spent relaxing with a movie and a meal," Mark Anderson, a spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic, told Telegraph Travel.
The company is also developing new technology to make entertainment more accessible for blind and visually impaired customers, he added.
Telegraph Travel has contacted various other European airlines, including British Airways.
What's wrong with ditching seat-back screens?
Many people don't travel anywhere without a laptop or tablet, preloaded with films and the latest box set. For them the loss of a seat-back screen will not be an issue (presuming their device isn't running low on battery). But for the thousands who don't travel with an electronic device, taking their seat on a long flight to discover there's nothing to watch will no doubt come as an annoyance.
What about the laptop ban?
The policy will also come under scrutiny should governments decide to reinstate the laptop ban, imposed on certain flights to and from Middle Eastern and North African countries between March and October last year.
The ban, which saw all devices larger than a smartphone consigned to the aircraft's hold, was introduced in response to intelligence about terrorists developing bombs that could be hidden in laptops and affected services between the UK and Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.