In-flight entertainment will get very personal in the coming years

Innovation drives change and one of the changes airlines are making is to put in-flight entertainment in your hands – literally. Will this be the end of the back-seat video screen? 

While some airlines announce free Wi-Fi for their passengers and others expand their entertainment options to include more choices, the writing is on the wall (or back seat, for that matter) for many of the familiar in-flight video monitors that have become so ubiquitous in aircraft cabins around the world. American Airlines is among the latest carriers ordering new aircraft without the in-flight back-seat video screens we've become familiar with. Instead, the airline is looking to take advantage of improved internet speed on its flights to directly stream (broadcast) content to passengers' electronic devices. Think of it as entertainment having gone from the big screen to the smaller screen to the smallest screens possible. 

Several airlines already stream video content, even live television broadcasts, through their internet service and this change is seen as a nod toward the public's preference for controlling their own in-flight experience. In a few short years, we have gone from having to shut off our phones and tablets once the aircraft door is closed to leaving them on as long as they stay in "airplane mode" and not transmit cellular signals. Now some airlines are offering gate-to-gate Wi-Fi service, allowing passengers to leave their devices on (non-cellular, of course) from pushback to arrival. Direct streaming to devices could be a win-win for many passengers and airlines, especially if it increases choices for the former and earns more revenue for the latter. 

In-flight Wi-Fi has been one of the few services that passengers say they don't mind paying a little extra for. Now that some carriers like JetBlue are offering their connectivity for free, it remains to be seen how the fee model for having internet 5 miles above the ground will evolve. American is one of many airlines considering how the technology shapes their in-cabin decisions. Cost is a key factor as wiring and monitors all add weight to an aircraft. Over time, that translates to added fuel burn and costs, but if the fee model holds, those expenses can be offset. What happens on long-haul flights, though? 

In-flight Wi-Fi is a bigger challenge for longer, overseas flights. Airlines have to be equipped with satellite-based equipment rather than ones that rely on ground towers. American and other airlines are making the change to satellite-based services to make their internet product more seamless from flight to flight and to make it available on longer, international flights. This system also has more capacity to allow multiple users to access video content which makes streaming directly to devices possible. It's the airline's version of cutting out the proverbial "middle man", but passengers without their own devices might have to bring their own non-connected entertainment or rely on airlines that provide tablets for a fee. 

After all these years, we've gone from no in-flight entertainment, to taped movies played on cartridges, to back-seat video screens, and then back to having no screens. It makes you wonder if airlines wish they had skipped the part where they had to install entertainment systems altogether and just waited for the newest technology to arrive.