Dear American: This Is Why Inflight Entertainment Matters

Filed Under: American

As we’ve recently learned, there seems to be quite a bit of internal dialogue among American management regarding what the airline should look like going forward.

American’s identity crisis

After the merger between American and US Airways, American adopted the “Going for Great” slogan, and they were trying to become a premium airline. But seemingly that has fallen by the wayside, both as they’ve eliminated that slogan, and as they’ve gradually deteriorated the product they offer on domestic flights.

Usually new planes are something to get excited about — just look at Delta’s A220s.

Delta A220 cabin

Delta A220 cabin

Meanwhile at American, their 737 MAX planes represent their worst product offered on a domestic flight yet. So they want customers to be excited about new planes, even though old planes offer a better experience than new planes.

American 737 MAX cabin

American 737 MAX cabin

Not only do American’s 737 MAX planes (and other planes in the “Oasis” configuration) have less legroom than previous planes, but American also made the decision to eliminate personal televisions on these planes. Here’s how to tell if you’re on an Oasis 737.

How American got to this point

I actually completely understand the decision making process that led to this. Most consumers are price conscious, and won’t choose an airline based on whether or not they have a personal television on domestic flights.

At the same time, American management can’t make sense of why they have a problem in terms of the revenue they’re achieving per seat per mile.

This gets at the very core of the problem. The debate over inflight entertainment on American has little to do with whether you personally use inflight entertainment on narrow body planes. Rather it has to do with the impression American is creating of the brand.

Why American inflight entertainment matters

@xJonNYC points to a FlyerTalk post by user jamesinclair that I think perfectly sums up this situation. I’m sharing the post here (with permission), because to me there’s no reason to rewrite something that explains the topic so well:

A lot of the conversation about IFE tends to revolve around personal use.

Person 1: I dont use IFE so AA is right in removing it.
Person 2: I use IFE so AA is wrong in removing it.

Im Person 2. However, I think IFE also plays a larger role in perception of the brand at large.

Imagine you check into a nice hotel and the TV offered is a 30 inch CRT from 1998. Straight off the bat, that will leave you with a negative impression of the hotel, even if you dont ever plan on turning it on.

Why? It sends the message that the hotel is cheap.

And lets be real. Nobody likes when things feel cheap. Yes, we all like paying less, but people expect a certain level of luxury.

IFE is the same thing. You walk onto a Delta or Jetblue plane and it feels modern and high tech and dare I say it, fancy. That leaves a good impression. Again, doesnt matter if you dont use IFE, the fact that it exists means the company is doing things to make your trip better.

On the other hand, a plane without IFE feels old and cheap. Doesnt matter if the plane is brand new, it looks more like a Greyhound than a jet.

We are in a capitalist society that essentially runs on perception. Brands spend billions on marketing in order to ensure that people associate their brand with positive feelings. They do it because it works.

AA management was clearly hungover the day they taught those case studies in business school.

“But look at Spirit”. Yeah, their whole business model is cheap. Thats fine. You CAN run a successful business on being cheap as possible. Walmart intentionally uses ugly shelving and harsh lighting to send the message that theyre cheap because they want people to associate the brand with low prices. But Walmart sells 79 cent sodas, not $9,000 business class seats to Japan. You cant have it both ways.

This this this this this!!!

This is just so spot on. For example, look at former Virgin America planes. Every time I was seated in first class I’d hear people walking by and saying “wow, this plane is awesome” or “this plane must be brand new.”

Virgin America cabin

Meanwhile not once have I heard anyone board an Oasis plane (even though they’re largely new) and say “boy this is nice.”

Companies like American spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing, whether we’re talking about online ads or the American Airlines Arena in Miami. Why? They want people to have positive associations with the brand.

At some point inflight entertainment isn’t about actually watching TV, but rather it’s about an identity crisis. If American Airlines is trying to be Spirit Airlines, then they’re doing great.

Spirit Airlines cabin

But otherwise…

  1. I still remember this was a late decision by AA to remove IFE. They were going to install 10″ units for every seat in Economy and 13″ for First.

  2. Even worse — they are far behind Delta with in-seat power. Sure, I can watch TV on my phone or computer — but what good is that if I can’t plug my it in?

  3. It also just feels more pleasant when you’re sitting in a cramped seat to have a screen in front of you as opposed to staring at some molded plastic the entire flight, and you don’t have to pull out another device that takes up already limited room.

  4. @Fish, my last AA flight had the plugs between and underneath the seats so even when the row was empty, I had to use my phone flashlight to find it. No way I was going to find it when another person was sitting there. I’d practically have to stick my head between their legs to look for it.

  5. Absolutely right. I don’t fly AA often, but when I do I always get the impression of a “cheap” plane.

  6. Ben, have you seen this ?

    Hundreds of illegal, fit, male migrants violently blocking CDG Airport in Paris to force the French prime minister to grant them asylum. Not exactly looking poor (wearing expensive Canada Goose jackets), peaceful (appearing to be potentially very violent) or hungry (in fact they look stronger than the average French male).

    So at least it should deserve a mention here as it is another reason in the long list why travellers should avoid CDG:
    1. Striking Air France pilots
    2. Striking Air France cabin crews
    3. Striking ground workers
    4. Striking catering companies
    5. Striking security personnel
    6. And now violent illegal migrants blocking the airport

  7. I’m a Delta flyer but will admit the past year I rarely use IFE nowadays. Instead, I download TV shows or movies from Netflix or Amazon Prime and binge watch them while up in the air.
    If not having IFE means more legroom, then I think that’s fine and makes sense. But if AA also decreased legroom AND removed IFE, then I just don’t get it.

  8. Meh – the pictures of the AA and Spirit planes both say to me: 1) no one’s going to be jabbing at the back of my seat messing with a touchscreen 2) no ones going to be forcing me to watch advertisement or AA’s stupid safety video on a screen I can’t shut off (much prefer the audio + FA demo version) 3) There’s less likely to be a massive equipment box taking up my legroom.

    Seatback IFE on domestic flights is an unnecessary and out-of-date approach. Give me power ports at every seat and streaming. Or give me the paperback I have with me on every flight.

  9. It’s just another example of the bush league management that is over its skis in almost every way. Every decision they’ve made just screams spreadsheet line item. And so many of these decision, while probably saved them a small amount of cash short-term, cost them in the long run…both cash in real terms and in future revenue/brand loyalty.

    How these f$cking idiots are still at the helm is shocking.

  10. I love Oasis planes. Lots of MCE. No physical bulkhead in economy so ample legroom in those seats. Armrests go up in emergency exits. I may care on longer flights, but IFE is annoying anyway on regional flights with CONSTANT interruptions that wouldn’t be on my personal device.

  11. great post and I agree the flyertalk poster nailed it – it’s a perception thing and a convenience when you don’t have movies loaded or you’re battery is dead and you can’t reach the power, etc. Or the wifi is not working on that plane that day.

  12. I’m not sure why you pick on AA so much for taking out IFE. UA is equally guilty in this regard.

  13. @max whilst strikes happen , Air France rarely now. Especially with all those negotiations since the changes at the top

  14. For me the legroom is a bigger issue than the IFE… I’d rather fly Spirit and just buy up to a Big Front Seat. At least they are honest about their niche in the market. American is too large and should be broken up.

  15. Sadly some execs probably feel this way at American but are terrible at articulating it in a way that translates to a clear business case. I think they’ve been able to do this internally at delta.

  16. Last time I flew transatlantic on AA I found myself wishing there was no IFE. You see, the overhead light was operated through the IFE and the IFE system crapped out on one side of the plane. The FAs told people to keep their shades closed so people who wanted to sleep could have dark. So my daughter and I could not read or play cards. We just had to sit in the dark for five hours. At the same time, because the system froze, some people had their overhead lights turned on and they stayed on even if they wanted them off.

    The lead FA, at first, told us that we would all get 10,000 AA miles for our trouble. Then he said the number had been 10,000 miles the week before, but now they were only offering 3,000 miles. I guess the bean counters were alarmed at the rate they were handing out miles due to their crappy IFE systems.

  17. I was gold on AA, completly dropped them, now Mosaic on Jetblue. Why? service, service, service. I would fly Spirit before I got back on a AA flight. They don’t care about the customer. It’s all about the bottom line and return for investors and what can you cut from the operating budget. But the only problem with that is without customers, you don’t get a return for your investors…..

  18. Honestly, Spirit’s cabin looks a lot more comfortable that AA’s Oasis configuration. Which does look incredibly cheap. Also, being 6’4″, a long flight in one of those seats would be horrible for my health. Got stuck in one of those seats from STL to ORD and it was an hour of torture. Never again.

    So, this is one former AAdvantage Platinum who no longer flies AA. Not ever. UA or WN get my business.

  19. Yes… the removal of IFE is terrible. I am a huge fan of IFE and feel like it should be on any flight over 2 hours. I hate stream to my device as I usually only have my cell phone which i have to hold or hunch over my tray table for the entire flight to watch it. Not to mention the fact that it drains my battery and power is not always available at every seat.

    Generally I fly whatever is cheapest, but I will pay a few dollars extra to ensure I have IFE.

  20. @Fish They are only behind on In seat power because they haven’t retrofitted the US AIr planes with it. The plan is to retrofit them by 2021 which feels like an eternity. Most Legacy AA based jets have in seat power.

    As far as IFE goes, Delta and the others are going to put further pressure on AA by offering it free along with wifi. The things AA wants to monetize will be given away by their competitors. This is going to put a big squeeze on AA management.

    That being said, AA management has mentioned on multiple occasions it admires and wants to be like Spirit. It admires their profits and thinks they can shrink to that model. I guess we’ll see what happens.

  21. I like two and only two things on IFE displays: “Flight Director mode” (or at least the rudimentary moving map), and tailcam. I have a very nice home theater with 4k video and Atmos sound. I will not be watching movies on a 13 (or 18) inch screen. Not ever. If a flight’s longer than 3 hours I would like to get some shut-eye for at least part of it, and for the rest, I’m fine with reading. BUT…

    As others have said, it’s about perception. AA is not a budget ULCC, at least not in people’s minds. It’s a legacy carrier with strong partnerships. I would tolerate a low-fare/no-frills seat if I could still earn 5000+ miles flying NYCSFO instead of ~350 or 500, and I could find wide-open redemption availability for direct trans-Atlantics in J, at 57,500 to 60,000 each way, and without massive fuel surcharges or other fees. Those would be my reasons for loyalty to AA, especially on their shorthauls and connections.

    They need to differentiate themselves from the ULCC market. Concede that to Spirit, Frontier, and Allegient. JBU and SWA are now the gold standard for price-vs-service, but they’re pretty well stand-alone carriers. DL has gotten the memo, and UA seems to be trying a bit harder post-Dao.

    For a 1000 mile flight give me a reason to pick AA over Frontier or Spirit. I can’t earn squat in coach or basic economy, and even when I’ve amassed a half-million AAdvantage points I still can’t use them for bugger-all on the dates I need to travel, so what’s the point?

    I recently flew trans-Atlantic on an Evelop-operated Norwegian flight, and even IT had a basic IFE system. Nothing to write home about, but at least it was *something*…and I got that for under $300 USD return. Similar routing on AA would have been about $600 more.

  22. @Mark G.

    After just 5 years of US+AA you think they are too big and want to break them up? I guess you aren’t thinking clearly.

    Doug Parker is going to be very happy. Not only did he cash out, he can undo everything and try to merge AA and make more money all over again.

    The IFE and seat pitch fiasco was an internal conflict. Soon after that, one or more moved to UA, go figure.

  23. @Lucky – It seems that the #1 benefit for having IFE in the cabin has been overlooked, and perhaps any anonymous FA’s reading this can chime in.

    IFE is the automatic and highly effective e-babysitter for children and adults while pax fly in a metal tube through the sky. Anyone who sees an IFE instantly realizes that they have options available to them while sitting in this uncomfortable seat, (likely) next to strangers. IFE can act as a soothing distraction, and should be used effectively as such.

    I wonder if any FA’s can compare how the pax in a IFE-present flight are different than a barebones non-IFE flight? If the IFE-present flight presents an easier experience for the flight crew, then everyone is happier all around (and likely to return).

    I’m willing to bet that Delta knows this and is putting their money where it will present a return. AA, of course, can’t see beyond their spreadsheets and suffers the consequences.

  24. I think there is a factor that has yet to be mentioned here. AA is getting a terrible reputation and part of that is that IFE was there before — so passengers perceive they have lost something.
    In comparison Southwest offers streaming but no built-in monitors. And WN passengers think this is great . Why? because WN added something new to the WN flight experience.

  25. If one finds Spirit an acceptable ride they can fly Spirit for a whole lot less than AA. AA can’t have it both ways – either they compete on price or compete on product. If they want Spirit, they need to lower their price. If they want to compete with Delta, they need to fix the cabin. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about IFE but high speed WiFi, power outlets, legroom and seating comfort matters, a lot! It’s not just about the IFE, it’s about the whole direction this new Oasis design portends. It just stinks!

  26. Bottom Line: IFE is convenient. You can just plug in some ear pods and you’re done. I love it. Huge mistake by AA to do away with it.

  27. The marketing value of IFE screens is well taken especially the old-tv-in-a hotel analogy. But I gotta think for most people, at this point fast streaming and power at every seat would be a priority. Unfortunately, there’s no power on any PMUS a321s that often fly 6 hour transcon flights. What’s the point of being able to watch a library of movies on my phone or computer if the battery is going to die after after a couple hours? Get the power ports on the planes, and most people won’t care about the seat back screens too much.

  28. One of the things I really love about IFE is the map. Sure it might not float everyone’s boat, but I really love it and I think it’s important to display where you are. But seemingly not many people care about it (especially in the US where geography doesn’t exactly rank very highly) which is a shame and a further dumbing down of society.
    Anyway, this is spot on. Unless they want to directly compete with the likes of Spirit or Frontier, AA better have a hard look at itself.

  29. Same with United which I’m avoiding from now on. No IFE on 4+ hours flights on 757s. (LAX-ORD/IAD). I get it on flights under 2 hours, but long flights?? I can’t hold up my phone in my hands for three hours. Unacceptable imo.

  30. IFE is terrible. Even if I can turn mine off, my neighbor has theirs on at 190% brightness, giving me glare headaches or preventing me from sleeping.

    There does need to be a legitimate focus on the health of such cramped seats, especially for those of us in the 6’+ category. At 6’3″ and skinny, I get wedged into pretty much any seat on United or AA. Somehow I find the seats on Frontier to be the roomiest and most comfortable.

  31. VX_Flier – You hit the nail on the head.

    One additional point about AA lacking an identity: nothing screams this more than the IFE situation. Dougie saying “no IFE because we need low fares to attract that customer base” and then saying “IFE is pointless anyway, people have tablets and iphones” is so contradictory. Not everyone is fully geared up with a tablet, headphones, and battery packs…

  32. Back in the early days of bus and train travel, flying was top of the heap. It was coat and tie formal travel and passengers were treated accordingly. Now, post deregulation, the airplane is just a stagecoach and the airlines will do everything possible just to stretch a buck. Passengers are herded like cattle and loaded up like cordwood. Don’t like that? Spend a lot more bucks for the personal service.

  33. Clearly AA is doing this for monetary reasons. But, if eliminating IFE systems can reduce fuel consumption and that in turns reduces carbon emissions, shouldn’t we be able to look past our need for constant stimulation from any available source and applaud the decision? Can’t AA spin this as a way to reduce CO2 emissions? I don’t care that AA is doing this for cost saving purposes is if the net result is sending less toxic effluvia into the air. I care more about my kids growing up in world where NYC isn’t underwater than I do about being able to watch Will & Grace reruns on a plane.

    Ok – let the attacks begin.

  34. Alaska Airlines has never had seatback IFE and they are insanely popular and extremely profitable. Never went bankrupt, never forced to merge with anyone (Virgin Air was an acquisition). Streaming entertainment is the way of the future, usage of IFE is low anyway.

  35. Henry,
    I think that argument sailed when you chose to fly a plane. They are not exactly green friendly. Its hypocritical at best.

  36. I think Alaska provides a premium service and has a sort of premium image too, and yet they have no IFE (unless you’re on an ex-Virgin America aircraft).

  37. There is a reality. People don’t want to pay for flights. In April I had my sister with my nephew flying from Boston to Dallas. Southwest had not only the cheapest flight, but gave flight change freedom with checked in luggage. Saved almost 200 USD and had more. Plane is a 737. For a four hours flight if I can save hundreds of dollars, well, I will bring my own entertainment. IFE are damn expensive and for domestic flights or for routes under 4 hours it’s a luxury it can be spared in my view. I wouldn’t be of the same opinion for flights above 4 hours. Making money on domestic routes for main airlines it’s no joke. In total honesty I can’t blame AA for this decision.

  38. Beyond the message it sends, the image it conveys… beyond the lack of available (in both senses) outlets and fast streaming service… is the fact that the decision doesn’t keep pace with personal device technology. No one has pointed out that the newer iPhone lines lack a separate port for earplugs, airbuds or whatever you want to call them. Not only do you have to use the special Apple-designed earplugs but you now can’t use that jack to power up.

  39. They’re better off removing IFE and adding charging and AC ports.

    They’re catering to business travelers who already have a device to watch movies on.

  40. But, why, then? Are all my flights on AA full?!
    “todays flight is a full flight, if you wish to check your carry-on, we can do that at no charge to you…. if you can find overhead space, please know that your carry-on needs to go in the overhead bin and your personal item needs to go in seat beneath you….. etc”. BTW, NO ONE puts their personal item below their seat. Same as in Europe.
    I think no one thinks about their flight. They simply fly at the cheapest price.
    The complain about no TVs but they forget about it in 10 mins.

  41. Rob,
    Because AA and pretty much all other airlines have cut the number of flights domestically. They make more money full — usually with a smaller plane — and with as many people on the plane as possible. We are cordwood.
    And yeah, I think about the flight. I loathe every single minute crushed into a too small seat with my knees jammed painfully against another seat that someone reclines. IFE? Largely insignificant considering the miserable seating.
    I either fly business, first class or on an Embraer which are less painful — or I don’t fly. I’m convinced there are a significant number of voluntary flyers that all airlines have lost, but they seem not to care. If I could fly everywhere on Alaska, I believe I would fly 10 times as much domestically. I find the fiesta boarding on Southwest off-putting, but otherwise it is much preferable as a company.
    Beyond that, I grit my teeth, get to an international departure airport and get out of the country on a foreign carrier. But then again, the US once again has led the way to the bottom. On a recent flight from Helsinki to Rome on Finnair, I walked down the (one) aisle and counted 48 people lined up for a bathroom. That was not a pleasant flight. It was a flying subway car.

  42. Most of my flights are 1-3 hour domestic flights so you may have a different opinion if you fly internationally. For me, though, I’d much rather get rid of IFE and just use my iPad/laptop so I don’t have to worry about those boxes getting in the way of under seat storage and legroom. Legroom is much more important to me than IFE.

  43. Do what I do. I dont fly any more. I take the train. It takes the stress out of my life, the scenery is great and the food is so much better.

  44. I’ll happily take the extra leg room from getting rid of those footwell entertainment boxes in exchange for losing IFE. Download your own entertainment, read a book, or take a nap! People are too tied to constant entertainment these days, no one knows how to just sit quietly and think.

  45. The fact that American doesn’t even have IFE on some of their 767 long haul J cabins is a disgrace.

  46. @William, believe it or not, when my wife and I lived in the USA, we never took a domestic flight but managed to visit almost 40 states by driving everywhere. The only times we flew were overseas trips. Thank God we didn’t have to endure what is the shambolic US domestic aviation scene.

  47. Great post, except that having the same image as Greyhound would be an achievement for AA. Right now probably unreachable.

  48. Do you think management at American read these comments? I hope they do, and I hope they take action to make their product better.

  49. Completely agree with Dennis. My favorite part of IFE is the map. At least United gives you a map on its flights with BYOD; AA lags technologically so I doubt it’ll follow suit anytime soon. There definitely is a premium factor on planes with seat back IFE – case in point are the LAA 737s with seatback monitors vs the ones without. It’s a shame to see AA aimlessly going to market and I hope things turn around soon… so much missed potential.

  50. Not looking forward to my business class flight from Reykjavik, Iceland to DFW during the day. It’s a narrowbody with NO IFE even in business class. So I’m having to take my iPad along instead of just my iPhone to be able to have any visual entertainment.
    Our flight from DFW to Dublin is on a 789 and has IFE. The weird part of this flight is that it departs at 11 PM and arrives around 2 PM the next day. Their business class meal service is dinner and breakfast. Who in the world wants dinner at midnight??
    Doug Parker seems determined to take AA all the way into ground before their BOD realizes he is a scam.

  51. As a consumer, I completely agree that PTV must stay. But, I don’t quite agree with the “chicness” argument. Couple of months ago, I flew the A220 in Swiss and, although it didn’t have PTV’s or business class, it was a fancy, beautiful little plane. But, when you put together the cheap plasticky slimline seats, drab finishes and the general “tightness” of the plane (let’s not even mention the abysmal lavatories), then it’s really a ULCC ambiance at legacy carrier price…

  52. Sharing the sentiments echoed by many others and a few new insights….

    I am currently onboard my first AA flight in over a year. The vast majority of my ~75 flights in the last 12 months have been domestic Delta flights. This particular flight is a 5 hr 15 min flight operated by an ex-US Airways A321.

    There is no IFE and no in-seat power. “Personal device entertainment” is useless if you can’t plug in to keep your device charged, as others have noted. Watching TV required my personal device occupy the tray table and prevented me from doing other work on a personal device simultaneously while watching TV, something I often do on Delta. It’s nice to have the news on in the background while working. In addition, this set-up made me less inclined to buy food on-board since I had no space to eat with my laptop out.

    There is WiFi on-board but no free in-flight texting nor free cellular WiFi through a partnership with a cell carrier (like Delta and T-Mobile have established).

    All of these are forgivable offenses on their own. But collectively, along with less comfortable slimline seating, two mechanical delays before takeoff, non-operable headrests, and half as many complimentary snack choices, the experience feels far inferior to what I’m used to and reinforces my decision to fly @Delta.

    I will say I usually equate AA to far inferior service but have been shocked by the quality of the LA-based crew on this flight. Attentive, personable, charismatic. Although it took a long time to get food and drinks, they provided both with a smile. The FA working my section took a fussing toddler in her arms during boarding to “help her get all the people on the plane,” soothing the toddler’s crying. All in all, really well done.

  53. I’m sure Delta would LOVE to sell AA its new proprietary wireless-tablet based IFE, which they developed to be lighter and cheaper. Amazing what qualifies as “innovative,” but no surprise AA doesn’t think out of the box…so to speak.

  54. Watch tv or movies on your phone while holding it in your hand and burning through the power on said phone is not consistent with a premium offering. I totally agree with you and this article.

    I flew just recently an on AA 319 (non USAir one) and it is so nice, comfortable, attractive, and just pleasant. I agree with no screens and plain interiors just send a signal that the company cuts corners and is cheap. With Spirit I know I’m getting a cheap product but I pay a very low cost for the ticket. With AA I’m paying a high price but getting a cheap product. So the money I pay goes to executives, not to the product.

    On Delta I pay a price and get a very nice product. Ditto for jetBlue. With Southwest I get basic service with a bunch of singing, dancing, joke telling, and texas ho-down on the flight.

    I wish AA would go back to a premium product versus this horrible cheap plain still not low priced product.

  55. I totally agree with the above article. That person nailed it! I’m an airline employee and what’s really poorly thought out and ridiculous is the fact that you have to use your own device but not all aircraft are equipped with individual seat power!! So when you are on the flight to LAX or Europe you cant even use the free WiFi entertainment AA provides.

  56. American’s product is insanely poor. The stale icing on the moldy cake is that their customer service is such as poor.

    When Delta (and even United) mess up, they compensate with actual value. American gives out the bare minimum. Bad flight experience, here’s 1,200 miles. Considering their cheapest one-way rewards flights are minimum 12,500 miles I need ten more poor experiences to get one flight. Absolutely insane.

  57. The difference is that Spirit passes a large part of the savings along as lower fares. American charges full price and gives the passenger cheap, tight accommodations. The money goes to the stockholders and executives. American has also been at war with it’s employee unions for a decade, and thus the employees also are understandibly burnt out. Spirit employees seem much happier and it shows in their attitudes. I don’t fly American if I can avoid it, because the customer experience is poor, and the price is not sufficiently low to compensate.

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