United Airlines Plans To Add Seatback TVs To Old Planes

Filed Under: United

While details are limited as of now, the idea behind this is refreshing, if nothing else.

United plans to retrofit older planes with TVs

Live and Let’s Fly notes that United Airlines’ Chief Customer Officer, Toby Enqvist, posted an employee video sharing how United needs to become an airline that people want to fly:

“Our competition is really, really stiff, especially in our hubs. Our customers actually have a choice. They don’t have to fly United, so we have to make them want to choose United.”

It’s so refreshing to hear this sentiment among airline leadership. So, how does United plan on becoming a more attractive airline that people want to fly?

Perhaps most interesting is that United plans to retrofit older narrow body aircraft to add personal televisions, including audio and video on demand. I’ll be curious to learn more details of this, because I’m a bit confused — for example, United chose not to install personal televisions on its Boeing 737 MAXs, so has the airline had a change of heart, or what’s going on?

There are some other initiatives the airline is planning, like expanding United Clubs at hubs that need more capacity, and implementing a meal pre-order concept for flights by the end of the year.

United plans to install TVs on more narrow body aircraft

Legacy airlines need to compete on product

It’s always nice to hear an executive at a US airline other than Delta say that they have to make customers want to fly their airline. This is something Delta has felt for a long time, and Delta has been able to achieve a revenue premium thanks to that.

On the other end of the spectrum you have American, which seems to have no desire to compete on product. The airline has been actively making its product worse by removing TVs from planes and adding more seats.

But here’s the problem — American essentially wants to compete with ultra low cost carriers, but it has a cost structure that is completely uncompetitive. So how is the airline supposed to make that work?

American’s not-so-luxurious interiors

United still has a culture problem

I hugely respect how United’s senior management talks about the importance of offering a good product. And in some ways United has been successful with that. Pre-coronavirus it had an unrivaled international route network, United Polaris is mostly quite good, and Polaris Lounges are exceptional.

But beyond that, United has such a long way to go, in my opinion:

  • More than anything I think United has a culture problem — while there are lots of great employees at United, the airline is definitely more like American than Delta when it comes to customer service
  • United isn’t competitive when it comes to its Wi-Fi offering, compared to American and Delta, which seems like a major thing to invest in
  • United talks about the importance of making people want to fly the airline, but then also has truly punitive policies, like being the only one of the “big three” US carriers to not allow free carry-ons for basic economy

United has done a fantastic job with Polaris Lounges

Bottom line

It’s great to hear that United recognizes that it needs people to want to fly the airline in order to be successful. That’s a lesson American seemingly hasn’t learned.

As part of that, United allegedly plans to install seatback entertainment on older narrow body aircraft. I’m a bit confused by that, because the airline is planning this while also not installing them on new Boeing 737 MAXs. So is there a change of heart at United, or what’s going on?

If you ask me, if United really wants to become an airline that people want to fly, it comes down to the people. And that’s an area where United has a lot of catching up to do to Delta.

What do you make of United’s alleged plans to retrofit planes with seatback entertainment?

  1. I fly them because they have nonstop flights where I need to go. Delta is nice and all that but they do not have nonstop flights to where I need to go nor do they even fly everywhere I need to go (they werent in Montrose/Telluride or Aspen this past ski season, while both AA and UA had robust schedules into both airports all ski season). Until Delta actually flies where I need to go with a nonstop, they wont be an option. I live in DC and dont see this happening any time soon, and I have no interest in making connections if I dont have to, just for a marginally potentially better experience.

  2. Delta are also good but the planes are either shiny new Airbus or more often from the Cold War. How will American respond? Spit at passengers as they embark?

  3. I’ve been flying United every other week for the past six months- entirely going LAX-EWR/DCA and now LAX-JFK. The service is noticeably able better and has been very consistent. Once the full menu is back in trans con Polaris, I’d argue the 763s with 46 business class seats are the best way to cross the country. The seats are far more private than Flagship First- which is a dated product at this point. JFK customers will be able to use the BA Galleries lounge at JFK once it’s back open and both JFK Terminal 7 and LAX Terminal 7 are the easiest terminals to get in and out of once traffic picks back up.

    So none of this news will surprise me as the airlines try to win back old customers. I expect the other airlines to follow Delta’s lead with making the FF programs more engaging to encourage people to burn all the miles they’ve been hoarding. I believe they will prioritize this because of the sheer amount of billions of dollars worth of miles pre-sold to banks and other partners during the pandemic.

    It will be an interesting summer to say the least.

  4. The investment in seat back TV is not attractive today. Supplying wifi based entertainment to use on personal device is becoming more preferred and having USB or plug power points is way to go.

  5. Until they disabled the passenger announcement disruptions the seatback tv’s are useless for flights under 3 hours. I’m not sure if the interruptions are airline policy or FAA, but they kill the product. I actually prefer no IFE.

    Interrupt my movie to listen to the pilot talk about the weather at the destination or even worse a credit card pitch, just no.

  6. I just flew my GF and kids RT to Hawaii in AA F and they griped about the lack of onboard entertainment. They stated our previous trip on B6 in coach was more enjoyable. Good move United.

  7. Really who cares, I am perfectly fine watching streaming movies from my iPad. Is a deal breaker whether I fly the carrier depending on if they have seat back or no seat back screens no. My prefer carrier is Alaska and they don’t and never have. Both AS and AA have plenty of movies on there on board selection. Ben you are a snob, but then again I am a hotel snob, but I wont go as far as staying at a Ritz Carlton

  8. Personally I just download Netflix shows to binge watch on my smartphone or ipad mini nowadays whenever I fly so I don’t have a need to use the plane’s onboard IFE.

  9. It’s interesting how American’s interiors look almost identical to those Alaska shows on its investor presentation slides, yet very few aviation enthusiasts whine about Alaska’s interiors. I also see very few complaints about Southwest, which also has no at-seat inflight entertainment. Yet Southwest has been consistently profitable without it for decades. Having made that point, I’m guessing American will add individual screens when its interiors come up for renewal and/or replacement. As for complimentary Wi-fi …

  10. This is a good move (if it indeed happens). On planes with seatback TVs (Delta), I see many passengers using them. I enjoy being able to listen to music or a movie in the background when I have my work laptop open, doing work. I was on a pre-merger AA A321 recently, one of the few left where they haven’t ripped out TVs, and I thought “how nice.” I also cannot tell you how many times the streaming entertainment doesn’t work.

    It also matters. Out of ORD, flight times between AA and UA are often equal (though UA has certainly maintained a much more robust schedule out of ORD during the pandemic; AA’s is currently abysmal for business-related departures). If I’ve got a choice between an oasis-configured AA 737 v. a UA narrowbody (with a larger economy plus section than AA’s MCE, which means it’s more likely window/aisle seats are still available for a last-minute business booking) with seatback TVs, I’m no longer going to default to AA because the airlines are equally bad. I think the executive is exactly right re: the competition at some of their hubs.

    Hear you on culture, Ben. But I also think the two are related. United, just like other carriers, does have some great employees. Those employees will shine even more if they feel great about what they get to offer passengers.

    Plus, to the extent that the attitude at the top matters in setting culture (and I think it does), having leaders at the top say “we actually have to compete for customers” and “customers will go elsewhere” is a win. Think about some of the past “contempt for customers” language that you’ve heard from other executives.

  11. Imagine being an executive in a highly competitive industry, getting paid way too much money, and taking until 2021 to realize “customers being happy matters”.

    Could be worse, they could be America West

  12. United has the lowest market share in their hub markets but Delta and JetBlue only share a hub with United in NYC and at LAX. It is hard to believe that United would be moving back to in-seat IFE if it didn’t feel pressure from either DL or B6 or a recognition that DL has used in-seat IFE as a mark of a higher quality product. It would appear that NYC is the primary market where UA feels a need to upgrade their product.
    Of course, United will still be handicapped with any decision on IFE because they have the highest percentage of flights operated by regional jets of any of the four airlines that subcontract out flying to regional carriers – AA, AS, DL and UA. B6 doesn’t have regional jet flights so all flights have in-seat IFE while DL has it on nearly all mainline fleet types.

    If UA goes back to in-seat IFE, it will be interesting to see if they go DL’s tablet/wireless approach for new installations.

  13. I love IFE and flying out of DFW on AA most every route i have the choice between a 737 with no IFE or an a321 with IFE and i pick the IFE option every time and choose to fly either 1 hour earlier or later if needed to secure the IFE. Yes i have an ipad but i generally love that AA always has quality new release movies and great classics to pick from and when i watch something on my ipad i want the flight map up with the speed/altitutde etc displayed.

    AA and other Legacy carriers just need to install new IFE that are only screens that dont have the heavy box components below that add weight and take up space, just get better hardware that pays for itself with the weight saved.

  14. I would be happy if they open up more of the UA Clubs (Orlando). They are getting away with less is more

  15. With battery life so poor in smartphone, often the weak link that causes one to have to buy a new phone, I will not watch movies or use the internet extensively on my phone. A seatback video is very important to me. (I’ve since gotten a tablet for cheapo airlines that don’t have seat back video and wifi only but I still don’t like to use it).

  16. While the culture point is important to solve, and I agree with earlier commenters that having a good product makes good employees more likely to shine (and results in fewer upset customers to begin with), it’s hard to solve across the board. There are many FA’s I’ve encountered on UA who could not be bothered to be proactive, polite, or at least make the appearance of working even on international flights. I’ve had plenty of great FA’s too (which I always write the GS line about) but the inconsistency is problematic.

    I actually think part of United’s strategy in this regard was around technology though. The more you enable customers to do without interacting with customer service reps, gate agents, check-in attendants, and FA’s, in many cases the better. While GS is one exception (those agents are incredibly useful as they can break otherwise immovable rules to resolve issues for you), before I was GS, I was much happier to just find a new flight when my existing one was cancelled or delayed, or change my flight via app, etc. The amount of (flexible) self-service you can do in their app is actually great – including free same-day change if you had status. And it improved my perception of the airline.

    If they allow meal selection and other aspects of in flight service to be handled through technology without FA issues, I’m all for that. They’re essentially planning obsolescence into their customer service by removing the variability of an actual human having to deliver positive interactions.

  17. @Pat is that you Discount Dougie?

    Ah yes, personal devices and USB power….because everyone has a smartphone/tablet….

    I’m so sick and tired of these remarks. Not all folks have a tablet. Not all folks even have a smart phone.

    Most of all, there’s little to no notification to passengers in advance about “the passenger’s own requirements” until it’s too late. Nothing like getting into the air and realizing you don’t have the app downloaded to watch IFE.

    Or the stressful scenario: hearing the (maybe) announcement from the FA that IFE is available on your personal device, and then realizing your app isn’t updated. This all while you’re in a metal tube surrounded by hundreds of people also on their phones (aka the app never updates before takeoff)

  18. I don’t understand the obsession with seat back IFE. Yeah, it’s nice, but streaming entertainment on my phone works just fine for me, when I have time to even watch it…I’m usually on my laptop working, like most other business travelers. I can also stay plugged into power while watching streaming entertainment, so that’s not a concern.

    I am AA loyal, but will admit that I have loved every experience flying DL because of their service…not because of their IFE.

  19. UNITED is rising

    The Delta management culture is of straight faced lies and “woke” political statements. Note Bastians response to the SW devaluation question.

    Nothing for UA to emulate there. Delta will lose share this cycle.

  20. I travel with 2 phones, 2 laptops and occasionally a tablet. I REFUSE to stream on my own device(s) and would much rather watch on an in-seat monitor. I fly DL mostly and find their choice of movies and shows to be outstanding. Is UA still using Direct TV with those small blurry monitors and limited choices of movies?

  21. Personally, I prefer American’s streaming content to your own personal device.
    It’s cleaner and safer.
    Especially will covid.
    American Airlines offers much more content than Delta.
    American WiFi is excellent.
    And, American has the youngest fleet.

  22. Personally, I prefer American’s streaming content to your own personal device.
    It’s cleaner and safer.
    Especially with covid.
    American Airlines offers much more content than Delta.
    American WiFi is excellent.
    And, American has the youngest fleet.

  23. I worked there when they chose to move away from seatback TVs, and it was because the product sucked. High maintenance costs, frequent disruptions, and low customer satisfaction. Customers almost universally preferred personal device entertainment, which was more efficient and reliable, so long as in-seat power worked properly.Unless the technology has improved by light years in the past 5 years, they would be much better off investing elsewhere.

  24. You are calling out United for not allowing a roll on included in basic economy fares! This is their way of competing and it is valid. This is one of the costliest factors in running an airline. Every day flights are delayed due to the predictable squeeze of finding space for carry ons or the ensuing arguments. Delays cost money and reputation. If you cant deal with it pay more or fly another airline.

  25. “They don’t have to fly United, so we have to make them want to choose United.””

    Here’s a thought. Stop alienating half of your customer base by wading into politics. Choosing sides is not a good look for any corporation. Let the people and their representatives work things out.

  26. What did UA have that NO OTHER AIRLINE IN THE WORLD HAD/HAS. That is Channel 9 live air traffic control. After the merger and after they removed audio from planes they got rid of this feature. As a pilot and aviation enthusiast this was the only reason that I spent more to fly UA on a 1K elite level. When they got rid of channel 9 that’s when I moved my 100,000 miles a year to Alaska. If they brought channel 9 back I’d go back to UA right away. Without channel 9 UA is just the same as every other airline

  27. AA’s decision to gut seatback TV looks better with each passing year. Dependable in flight wifi is so much more important.

  28. Oh leave American alone. The US3 essentially are the same. Hit and miss across the board. It’s how Delta spins its marketing and communications that make the difference. Seriously, they each have their pluses and minuses. UA has improved greatly from the days when it considered customers (premium all the way down to basic economy) as a nuisance. AA has also made improvements operationally and frankly, their economy class product on domestic flights is essentially the same as Delta and United. The differences are not that glaring. Seatback TVs are great but streamed content is just fine too. Delta has a standout operational platform (until Thanksgiving 2020 anyway) but it too is hit and miss. Delta One on the non-renovated planes is dated and uncomfortable, and Delta’s renovated A320s and 757s are very uncomfortable in economy class. I generally avoid United because of its hubs. They’re all in places prone to severe delays.

  29. @Tim Dunn, although I just checked, and the JetBlue E-190’s do have TV, so you’re correct they have TV on every flight. Though I’d still call the E-190 a regional jet.

  30. > not allow free carry-ons for basic economy

    That is a feature: none of the drama with people trying to bring too many bags on board and then waiting for gate check. Cheap-ticket-people have time to check-in their bags, and that’s what they do, freeing space for carry-ons.

    I wish other airlines did the same, and am glad to see the new startup charging more for carry-on than checked bags, as it should be.

  31. When trying to work, I like having a movie on the seatback entertainment in the background. I like coding with a movie in the background and often have a movie playing on one of my monitors at work.

    Nice to have but wouldn’t go out of my way to fly united for this

  32. @Ivan X,
    the Ejets including the E190 are regional jets. They can accommodate in-seat video although my point is that no mainline carriers have bothered to put seatback AVOD on their regional jets, including Delta.
    It will be American that is most impacted by not having in-seat AVOD on most of its mainline domestic fleet.
    Customers don’t know the age of aircraft; the do know if a plane looks modern and is well-maintained. AVOD instantly says that the plane offers more than basic transportation. UA clearly came to the conclusion that B6 and DL have known for years. AA will be the outlier, notable in that it chose B6 as a partner and because it competes most directly with DL and UA.

  33. I know I’ll get slammed for my following comment, so be it.

    I find so many of these comments appearing to be from whiny amateurs.

    Real “road warriors” don’t sweat the small stuff. We don’t have the time for that kinda silliness.

    And if you are a corporate traveler, do you think your employer would be impressed by such whiny comments?!?!

  34. I don’t need in seat IFE.

    Give me in seat power (not USB, a full 110V plug) to keep my tablet/laptop charged for the entire flight. Make in-plane WiFi reliable, even just for streaming off the airline’s library of live and on demand content.

  35. @jake

    “> not allow free carry-ons for basic economy

    That is a feature: none of the drama with people trying to bring too many bags on board and then waiting for gate check. Cheap-ticket-people have time to check-in their bags, and that’s what they do, freeing space for carry-ons.”

    Agreed. Glad to see UA hold the line on that one.

    “This is a good move (if it indeed happens). On planes with seatback TVs (Delta), I see many passengers using them. I enjoy being able to listen to music or a movie in the background when I have my work laptop open, doing work. ”

    You bet. And the live map. These small things make a difference… Except, I would never do work on an airplane – better to have a Woodford Reserve or two on the rocks and enjoy being off! 🙂

  36. Bad move, no need for seatback IFE on domestic flights. Seatback IFE just means:

    * new uncomfortable slimback seats with no padding
    * people poking at the back of my seat
    * unnecessary extra light on night flights
    * interruptions and advertisements with no ability to turn them off
    * angry passengers when the system inevitably fails.

    Any flight less than 6 hours – I’ll actively prefer a seat with no seatback-IFE.

    My paperback book will do just fine.

  37. @Leigh – “real road warriors” arent the ones traveling right now, and won’t be for a while, so airlines need to cater to leisure travelers.

  38. @John Luffred – a few questions:
    1) how is streaming safer? I’d love any details of proven covid transmission by surface, specifically IFE screen
    2) youngest fleet? OK. But given the issues with the Max and 787, I’d gladly take an older fleet of A320s or the infinitely more comfortable A330s that were prematurely scrapped

  39. I always travel with my tablet and smartphone and both have United apps (and updated all the time).
    However the convenience of having entertainment screen without having to ruffle through your carryon for your own tablet or phone (and wonder if it has enough juice to last your trip) is very welcome.

  40. Just a thought but what if United normalized the Premium Plus seat as their domestic first class seat on all mainline aircraft? That would put them way ahead of everyone else, just saying.

  41. “DELTA STILL FLYING AIRTRAN 717′,757,767.

    Actually Delta’s older planes seem a lot fresher inside than a lot of American’s newer ones.

  42. “DELTA STILL FLYING AIRTRAN 717′,757,767.

    Actually Delta’s older planes seem a lot fresher inside than a lot of American’s newer ones”

    Delta did re-do the interiors of these older planes..Even when I was on it someone commented that it’s nice being on a new plane and they didn’t believe me when I told them that the plane was 25 years old. They really improved the interior product on some of those DL planes at least giving the impression the planes are new.

    Personally I love TV s in the seatback. It puts way too much strain on my neck looking down at the tray table at my phone for hours. Going back to UA I just wish they’d bring back Channel 9 live ATC instead. Which truly is something no other airline in the world had/has

  43. I’m excited to see this! I hope it means all planes, not just some older ones. And I hope it will force American to follow.

  44. I don’t get how some folks are fine not having IFE and are fine having to use their own device. I absolutely hated flying on the former USAir fleet that American inherited because they were using A321s with no IFE AND no power on cross country flights. So yeah, go ahead and use your own device for a 5 hour flight and arrive at your destination with a dead battery. Another issue I have with not having the personal screens is that you can’t watch a movie and respond to texts or other messages while connected to the Wi-Fi without interrupting the movie or having the app crash on you when you go back to the entertainment app. I’m sure there’s not a whole lot of people that really care about the in flight map but I actually like that feature especially if it’s the Panasonic version. The flight tracker is half assed on the web portal, just a map with a plane on it that isn’t moving real time.

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