Are the Days of In-Flight Entertainment Seatback Screens Numbered?

During the second half of the 20th century, airlines tried hard to keep the passengers engaged while flying lengthy flights. Intercontinental air travel takes 5, 10, 15, or even more hours, depending on the distance. First, there were cinema panels for movies, turntables that played music on passenger’s demand, jukeboxes… In the turn of the centuries, the digital age brought personalized screens. They are installed on the backs of every seat, so the passenger on the seat behind can choose content. Around 2005, the seat-back in-flight entertainment screens were so powerful and passengers couldn’t bring anything similar to themselves.

Trends Hitting the Seatback Screen

A few years later, Apple launched iPad, which was followed by many cheaper tablets running on Android. Today, tablets are quite affordable yet powerful. Price of a good budget tablet is just a fraction of what you pay for a single intercontinental flight ticket, e.g. from Mumbai to New York.

On the other hand, airlines wage a war with flight costs. Oil prices are rising, so does the price of new planes. Governments also impose new and costly security measures every year. To make flying efficient, they seek to remove anything from airplanes that is not necessary to make a secure flight.

Giving Up Seatback In-Flight Entertainment

WestJet, the largest low-fare carrier in Canada, which crosses the Atlantic with its fleet of Boeing 767-300ER widebody aircraft, started removing seatback screens since 2014. Instead of the flashy screen on every seat’s back, you will find a universal tablet holder with a power outlet and Wi-Fi connection. The airline streams its In-Flight Entertainment software to the user’s device free of a surcharge, though you can still watch any other content. The In-Flight Entertainment platform brings in free movies, more than 300 TV channels, music, flight info, Web browsing, and games. What is the main advantage of this approach is that the user can use his or her own apps.

Completely Screenless: Inside the WestJet Boeing 767-300 economy class

Another great convenience for both the passenger and the airline is the money they save. Being a low-cost carrier, WestJet is able to offer prices that are so lower than the competitors, that for the difference you can buy a good tablet. For the next flight, you will save money, bringing the same tablet with you onto that flight. Airlines do save since planes are much lighter, which saves some fuel. An average tablet is much lighter than an In-Flight Entertainment seatback screen, which needs to be locked inside a heavy protective case.

In-Flight Entertainment makers Strike Back

The built-in seatback In-Flight Entertainment does not surrender, of course. Major world airlines, such as Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Hainan Airlines, and others are racing to offer bigger and sharper personal screens. Also, to back off the “bring your own device” threat, the In-Flight Entertainment screen manufacturers make their seatbacks lighter, larger, higher resolution, faster, and more energy efficient. An example is the 2018 THALES Avant, which brings in a 30% higher energy efficiency and Retina-level resolution. The buyers of this seatback system include Emirates, Qatar Airways, Japan Airlines, and many others.

Thales jumbo seatback

Future Thales giant IFE screens


Most prestigious airlines of our time also show no interest to remove the seatbacks from their fleet. Instead, there is a race going on to get bigger, faster and clearer devices.

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