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Coming soon to all United flights: Seatback entertainment screens

Date: June 29, 2021

By Dawn Gilbertson, USA Today

United Airlines is making a big bet on inflight entertainment as part of a major post-pandemic plan announced Tuesday.

The Chicago-based airline is buying nearly 300 new planes — the latest sign of confidence in the travel industry's comeback — and said each of them will be outfitted with seatback entertainment screens as they arrive in the next five years. 

Passengers won't have to be on a new plane to watch the free lineup of movies, TV shows, games and other entertainment, however. 

United said it plans to add seatback screens to existing narrowbody planes without screens (except for regional aircraft). The retrofitting project, which will also include other features including larger overhead bins, will begin next year and two out of three planes will be done by 2023, the airline said.

Today, about a third of United's 580 narrowbodies have seatback screens. Passengers on other flights can stream a library of free entertainment to their smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices.

"We here at United do not think streaming on your own device is good enough,'' Toby Enqvist, United's chief customer officer, said in a briefing with reporters.

The airline is going to have seatback entertainment at "each and every seat,'' he said.

Inflight entertainment varies by airline. Delta Air Lines has aggressively added seatback screens to planes over the past few years and now has it on nearly all but its smallest planes.

American Airlines has retreated from seatback screens on its narrowbody planes, with just 20% percent now offering it, in favor of an inflight lineup of free entertainment passengers can stream. (Seatback screens are generally standard on most airlines' long international flights using widebody aircraft.)

Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest domestic carrier, offers no seatback screens but offers free movies, TV shows and live TV to passengers on their own devices.

United CEO Scott Kirby, a former American executive, said he has long been a "big fan'' of seatback screens and said he counted more than 60% of passengers on a flight last month using them.

One of the passengers: his 7-year-old son, who played a game against another passenger on the flight, a feature available in the seatback screen.

"He was bouncing up and down to tell me how excited and how much fun he had playing Battleship,'' Kirby said. 

United says its research shows improved inflight entertainment will give the airline an edge over rivals without it.

"There's no doubt in my mind that this is something our customers value,'' said Andrew Nocella, United's chief commercial officer.

 

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