Evolving technology like enhanced in-flight Wi-Fi has made streaming on mobile devices more convenient than it has ever been. At the same time, a lot of passengers still prefer not to use their own devices for in-flight entertainment and look forward to enjoying it on their seatback TV screen.
So what does that mean for airlines these days? Well, it’s a pretty mixed bag and so below, I will break down what each major airline offers in terms of seatback screens. I’ll also state the case for why seat back screens are still needed even with high speed internet available in the cabin.
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Seatback screens overview
Each airline seemingly has its own philosophy regarding seatback screens.
Some airlines have installed them in every plane while others have failed to put them in even a single seat. Some are trending towards eliminating them and transitioning to streaming while others are bringing them back.
The airlines that are most seatback friendly include: JetBlue and Delta. The least friendly would be: Alaska, Southwest, and budget airlines like Frontier and Spirit. American and United are in the middle with United trending to being much more “seatback friendly” than American.
Widebody versus narrow body
Your route and the type of aircraft you’re flying often dictates if you will have a seatback screen.
Generally, you can expect to find seatback TV screens on widebody aircraft (777s, 787s, etc.). These are planes that typically fly on longer international routes but sometimes they also fly on shorter international and domestic routes. There are also smaller regional jets (Bombardier, Embraer) which almost never come with seatback screens.
For the most part it is the narrow body jets (737s, A321) — the ones that fly around on most domestic routes — that are the top concern when people talk about seatback TV screens. That is because it is these type of jets where you see the big differences between the competition.
Quality may vary
The excitement of a seatback TV is quickly lost when you realize you’re not looking at an HD screen. Older aircraft or those that have been skipped on retrofits may not have the best quality screens so just because you have a seatback screen, that does not always mean you are going to be interested in using it.
This article is focusing on seatback screens, which as the name implies, are screens found in the back of each seat. Some of the old-school aircraft may have overhead screens.
These are truly the worst type of screens since sometimes you may be seated pretty far away from them and struggle to make out what is on the screen. Luckily, it is pretty rare to come across these nowadays.
Seatback screens airlines overview
Below, you can find a breakdown for each airline regarding their seatback screens found on the different aircraft. Further down in the article, I lay out the major reasons why airlines should include seatback screens and also why they choose not to.
You may have thought that Alaska would be a front runner with screens after the merger with tech savvy Virgin America but unfortunately Alaska went a different route. They removed live TV and then ripped out the screens from the Virgin America planes. Now all that you have is a seatback with a holder for your tablet or phone (along with the charger).
Alaska Airlines had a policy where you could pay to use tablets for your in-flight entertainment but they permanently did away with that due to coronavirus concerns.
With Alaska Beyond Entertainment, you can stream movies and shows for free on your own devices by connecting to the Gogo network, so there is at least still some decent in-flight entertainment options. You can also enjoy Headspace meditation sessions and free in-flight texting on Alaska Airlines flights (read more about texting on a plane here).
If you are hoping to have a screen on your domestic flight your odds of getting an American Airlines plane with a TV screen are not very high. Only about 20% of narrow body planes for American Airlines have TV screens. That’s no surprise as American has had the mindset that seatback screens would be obsolete by now.
Even though they are not big on screens, you can still take advantage of in-flight entertainment by streaming movies, music, and TV shows. You can also access Oprah’s Book Club on Apple Books, Apple TV+, and Apple Music or brush up on language skills with Rosetta Stone.
|Airbus A319||Yes, depends on individual aircraft|
|Airbus A321||Yes, depends on individual aircraft|
|Boeing 737 Max 8||No|
|Boeing 737-800||Yes, depends on individual aircraft|
You can always tell if your American Airlines flight will have a seatback screen based on the icon that appears in the flight search results. For American, they use a clapperboard icon.
Delta is one of the best airlines for seatback entertainment. You’ll find that approximately 90% of Delta aircraft have seatback screens! In fact, Delta may have more aircraft with seatback screens than any other airline in the world!
Delta has also focused broadly on their in-flight experience by offering shows (12 channels of live satellite TV), movies, and music/podcasts, and also in-flight messaging and high-speed Wi-Fi.
|Boeing 737-800||Yes, Coded 73H (Code 738 or 73Y has overhead)|
|Boeing 757-200||Yes, depends on individual aircraft|
|Bombardier CRJ-900 Atmosphere Cabin||No|
|McDonnell Douglas MD-88||No|
|McDonnell Douglas MD-90||No|
Delta will display an icon if the aircraft in the flight search results has a seatback screen.
As Frontier is a low-cost carrier it is no surprise that there are no seatback screens. Frontier does not offer any type of in-flight entertainment and that is said to be in order to pass the savings onto the customer.
JetBlue has a claim to fame that they are the only US airline with TV screens on every seat. It’s a pretty impressive accomplishment and it is one of the ways that JetBlue really stands out from its competitors like Southwest. They offer movies, dozens of channels of live DIRECTV, SiriusXM, Showtime, and Bloomberg.com. They also offer high-speed Wi-Fi.
Southwest Airlines does not offer any aircraft with TV screens in the seats. Instead, your best option is to stream entertainment on your own device. You will be able to stream different types of in-flight entertainment such as TV shows, and movies for free.
If you would like to browse the internet it will cost you $8. (If you have an eligible Southwest credit card you can take advantage of Wi-Fi credits.) Southwest may block high bandwith applications and websites which means that you may not be able to use things like Netflix, HBO Max, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams.
Spirit Airlines has an agreement to get satellite Wi-Fi on its entire fleet very soon. They state that they will offer high-speed web browsing and streaming options “with an average price of $6.50” but that costs may be very based on the route/demand. They won’t have any type of media center and they state but it is more about you being able to access all of your content through Netflix, Hulu, etc.
About a third of United’s 580 narrowbodies have seatback screens, but United Airlines is reportedly bringing back seats with TV screens.
They recently purchased 300 aircraft and all of them have TV screens in them. They also stated that they will be retrofitting planes and adding seatback screens to existing narrowbody planes (except for regional aircraft). Supposedly two out of three planes will be finished by 2023.
So the seatback signal is obviously much stronger with United than American. But it is still going to take another year or two until the odds are in your favor that your aircraft will have a seat back screen. You can always check out the United Private Screening entertainment options here.
|Boeing 737 Max 9||No|
|Boeing 737-700 Domestic||Yes|
|Boeing 737-700 Micronesia||Yes, but is overhead screens|
|Boeing 737-800||Yes, depends on individual aircraft; some may have overhead screens|
|Boeing 737-900||Yes, depends on individual aircraft|
|Boeing 777-200||Yes, depends on individual aircraft|
|Embraer EMB 170||No|
|Embraer EMB 175||No|
Seatback screens offer a better experience
It’s pretty clear that most passengers prefer watching their entertainment on seatback screens instead of streaming on a device. In fact, about 70 percent of passengers prefer seatback screens, according to an APEX Global Passenger Survey.
Here is why I think seatback screens offer a much better passenger experience.
Not everybody has a capable mobile device for streaming so screens provide entertainment options for every passenger. This is especially true for families with a lot of kids who can’t afford or don’t want to hassle with traveling with a lot of tablets.
Also, a lot of people don’t like to hold their mobile phone through an entire flight (although some airlines do have seatback phone holders).
And finally, accessing the streaming services via your device is not always straightforward. You usually have to remember to download their app before your flight and then it’s not uncommon to run into connectivity issues. For less tech savvy passengers streaming can be a real problem.
Although I do not really believe in multitasking for me personally, seatback screens do make multitasking easier.
You don’t have to exit out of your movie or show to access your emails, messages, or whatever else you need to access on your device. It also prevents you from draining your device’s battery when on aircraft that do not have power outlets.
Relieves you from responsibility
With seatback screens, you don’t have to worry about planning ahead for your entertainment. Many passengers already have so many things going on before a trip. Adding the chore to find and download movies is just one more thing to get in the way.
Also, I feel less awkward watching certain movies on seatback screens versus on my own device because at least I can blame my decision partially on the movie selection offered by the airline. 😉
Speeds up security
Removing screens from aircraft likely means more people bringing electronics through security. This would have the net effect of slowing down the security process for people who don’t have TSA Pre-Check.
It’s really nice being able to check out the route map, altitude, etc. on the seatback screen.
In-flight dining is easier
Seatback screens can be used to order food and drinks, making the order process more efficient and also clearing space in the aisle.
It’s also much easier to enjoy in-flight dining when you don’t have to worry about holding your phone up or propping it up against something. There will be fewer wires involved and you can focus on just enjoying your meal and movie or show.
Maybe it is because I grew up flying Southwest a lot so I do not have a lot of experience with seatback screens but I believe watching entertainment via seatback screens is a novel experience that just feels right. It’s almost like going to the movies and getting popcorn.
Plus, if you are flying with others you all can easily enjoy the same movie and talk about how amazing or unamazing the film was.
Why would airlines take away seatback screens?
Screens can be expensive and may cost $10,000 per seatback. They require maintenance and dealing with upset passengers when their screens malfunction during a flight (make sure you always request miles if this happens to you).
There is also the weight factor which increases fuel consumption for the aircraft.
With high-speed Wi-Fi becoming more common and presumably cheaper, the streaming experience should be able to improve dramatically.
It’s really interesting to watch the trends play out with respect to seatback entertainment. There are some solid reasons both for and against seatback entertainment but I think the arguments in favor are much stronger.
I understand airlines trying to preserve profits but at a certain point they have to understand that there won’t be any profits to preserve if they keep cutting luxuries that have virtually become necessities. Luckily, there does seem to be a trend to restore seat back entertainment with some of the major airlines.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.