United Airlines is putting a big bet on on-board entertainment as part of a grand post-pandemic plan announced on Tuesday.
The Chicago-based airline is buying nearly 300 new jets, the latest vote of confidence in the return of the travel industry, and said that when they arrive they will each have entertainment screens for the next five years.
However, passengers do not have to sit on a new aircraft to watch free programming from movies, TV shows, games, and other entertainment.
United announced that it will equip existing narrow-body aircraft without displays (with the exception of regional jets) with displays on the backrest. The modernization project, which will include other features, including larger overhead bins, begins next year and two out of three aircraft will be ready by 2023, the airline said.
Today, about a third of United’s 580 slim bodies have seatback screens. Passengers on other flights can stream a library of free entertainment to their smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices.
“Here at United, we don’t think streaming on your own device is good enough,” said Toby Envqvist, United’s director of customer service, in a briefing with reporters.
The airline will offer entertainment on the back of “every seat”, he said.
On-board entertainment varies depending on the airline. Delta Air Lines has aggressively screened the backrests of airplane seats in recent years and now has them on almost all but the smallest of airplanes.
American Airlines has moved away from the screens on the backrests of their narrow-body jets, with only 20 percent now offering it in favor of an in-flight entertainment line that passengers can stream. (Screens on the backrests are generally standard on most long international flights with wide-body aircraft.)
Southwest Airlines, the country’s largest national carrier, does not offer seat-back screens, but does offer free movies, TV shows, and live television for passengers on their own devices.
United CEO Scott Kirby, a former American executive, said he has long been a “huge fan” of back-seat screens and said more than 60% of passengers on a flight used them in the last month.
One of the passengers: his 7 year old son who was playing a game against another passenger on the flight, a feature available on the backrest screen.
“He moved up and down to tell me how excited and funny he was playing battleship,” Kirby said.
United says its research shows that better in-flight entertainment will give the airline an edge over competitors without it.
“I have no doubt our customers will appreciate this,” said Andrew Nocella, United’s chief commercial officer.