Seat-back screens on planes are starting to disappear

In-flight entertainment screens are expensive to install and add bulk and weight to seats. So some airlines are phasing out screens in their aircraft in favor of content offerings that passengers can stream from their own personal mobile devices.

Airlines have been shrinking their seats for a long time, aiming to reduce the planes’ weight and squeeze in more passengers. But lately, some carriers have been going one step further in redesigning their seats: They’re taking away the seat-back screens.

Formally called in-flight entertainment (IFE), the screens, and the preselected media on them, go a long way toward keeping passengers happy and distracted. The longer the flight, the more useful the seat-back entertainment becomes.

But those entertainment systems are expensive to install. They can cost $10,000 per seat, estimated Dan McKone, managing director and head of the travel and transportation practice at the consulting firm L.E.K.

They also add bulk and weight to seats and quickly become technologically obsolete, especially because most Americans are now flying with at least one mobile device, said Henry Harteveldt, travel-industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group.

“Some airlines are looking at this from the standpoint of cost savings by removing the hardware,” he said. “They reduce the weight of the aircraft, and they reduce the expense associated with maintaining that equipment.”

American and United Airlines are phasing out screens on new short-haul aircraft in favor of content offerings that passengers can stream from their personal devices.

The decision on whether to update the screens, Mc­Kone said, is mainly economic. “I think you’re going to continue to see increasing economic pressure not to replace IFE, particularly on the shorter-haul fleets,” he said. McKone predicted that more domestic flights in the future would offer content streaming on a bring-your-own-device model.

Some travelers are happy to say “good riddance” to the seat-back screens. Lindsay Renfro, an associate professor at the Mayo Clinic, is among them. She travels about once a month for her job developing clinical trials for cancer research and views seat-back entertainment as something of a redundant amenity.

“There are screens everywhere else in life,” she said. “I know that when I am flying and I look around me, people are by and large using personal devices, even when a seat-back…

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