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Are fliers losing those wonderful seat-back entertainment systems?

WestJet and Air Canada appear to be going in opposite directions when it comes to seat-back entertainment on Canada’s most popular airlines. And Americans might be losing quite a lot of them.

In a story first published in The New York Times, it was stated that some airlines are taking away the popular seat-back screens that show movies and TV shows on airplanes around the world. They’re expensive to install – about $10,000 USD per seat – and they also weigh a great deal.

The Times story said some airlines are looking at the number of passengers who now carry mobile devices and figure they can jettison the seat-back systems to save both money and fuel. American and United are each phasing out the screens on new, short-haul aircraft and providing streaming material that customers can get on their iPads and cell phones and such.

The Toronto Star took things a bit further for the Canadian market and asked both WestJet and Air Canada what they’re doing. WestJet said it’s implementing something called WestJet connect, “an in-flight entertain system that enables smartphone, tablet or laptop access to complimentary entertainment and flight information as well as paid Internet,” according to the Star. The paper quoted officials as saying that the system is being rolled out “across our fleet, so screens will not be needed.”

Are seat-back entertainment systems becoming a thing of the past? NEW YORK TIMES PHOTO

The Star. where I worked for 32 years, said WestJet started getting rid of seat-back TV monitors in 2015. They also said 75 per cent of WestJet passengers bring their own devices on board.

Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick, however, said Canada’s biggest airline will continue with seat-back entertainment systems “because we know customers really like this amenity, including the diversity of the content.”

Fitzpatrick said Air Canada’s new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, delivered late last year, have a new generation of in-flight entertainment options, including improved selections and a 15-language user interface.
“Soon, passengers will be able to stream video and audio to their own devices from our IFE, so we se see our IFE and personal devices as complimentary,” Fitzpatrick said. It also fits Air Canada’s strategy of giving customers the ability to tailor their own travel experiences.

I rely on in-flight, seat-back entertainment systems to watch my favourite movies on an airplane.

Of course, anyone who has flown Air Canada rouge since it started a few years ago knows that they don’t have seat-back systems, which means you have to rent an iPad (I think they’re $10) or bring your own device and download the Air Canada app BEFORE you take off so that you can access their in-flight entertainment.

On a separate tech note, Fitzpatrick also said Air Canada continues to roll out on-board Wi-Fi on a system-wide basis.

The Star asked its readers what they thought of the idea, and the answers were pretty overwhelming. When I went online yesterday, 73 per cent of respondents said they didn’t like the idea of jettisoning the seat-back systems, compared to 14 per cent who says it makes no difference and 13 per cent who like the idea.

I feel the same way as most of the Star readers. We have one iPad between my wife and me, and I don’t always want to carry more equipment on the road so I usually leave it at home. I can’t access in-flight entertainment on my laptop, and my iPhone isn’t so big that I enjoy it for watching movies. I also don’t have time to download movies or TV shows in advance, so I rely on the airline to give me a seat-back system with lots of choices for longer flights. It’s one reason I like flying with Air Canada, along with collecting Aeroplan points (at least until they form their own loyalty system).

Count me firmly in the “don’t get rid of seat-back entertainment” column.

Got a comment? Drop me a line: jim@jimbyerstravel.com. You also can follow me on Twitter: @jimbyerstravel. And on Instagram: @jimbyerstravel1

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