Why your brand-new plane doesn't have a seat-back TV

Earlier this year, I boarded a United flight from Newark to San Diego. After passing the first few rows, a young boy turned to his mother and asked, "Why aren't there any TVs?"

"It's probably an older plane," she responded -- but that couldn't be further from the truth.

The aircraft, a 737-900 with Boeing's Sky Interior (a Dreamliner-esque recessed ceiling lit with blue LEDs), had only been flying for a few weeks. It looked new, and it even had that "new plane smell" most passengers would only associate with a factory-fresh auto. But despite the plane's clean and bright appearance, the family only noticed the glaring absence of seat-back screens. To them, our 737 might as well have rolled off the assembly line in 1984.

Dozens of other passengers made similar remarks as they walked by my seat, and many more probably inquired with a flight attendant or aired their complaints on Facebook or Twitter. I had a similar experience while flying the same route last week. I was seated next to a corporate executive who normally travels on United's better-equipped international fleet -- he was clearly unhappy about the entertainment situation, and, like the mother I heard earlier in the year, assumed that our brand-spankin'-new 737 predated the 21st century. It's reasonable to assume a new plane would be delivered with the latest technology, but unfortunately that isn't the case.

That new plane smell

The Newark-to-San Diego flight, scheduled for more than six hours from gate to gate, is a prime candidate for airline-provided entertainment. If you don't come prepared, those raggedy catalogs and magazines in the seat-back pocket can occupy an hour or two at best. Unfortunately, airlines don't make it easy to figure out whether you'll have on-demand content, live video or absolutely nothing at all on board. Our flight was equipped with Exede, the fastest WiFi in the sky, provided by the speedy ViaSat-1 satellite and installed by LiveTV, the same company responsible for outfitting United's 737 fleet with seat-back DirecTV. But leisure travelers seem to be most interested in video, as low quality as it may be.

Instead of the DirecTV logo that occasionally appears in the entertainment section of United's flight status page, the flight only listed onboard WiFi, along with a promise from the airline: "Personal device entertainment is coming soon," which will enable you to view content streaming from the plane using your own laptop, smartphone or tablet. Boeing delivers all of United's 737s without entertainment or WiFi -- instead, a third party handles the installation. But since airlines want to get their new planes into service immediately, they usually schedule installations, which take an aircraft out of commission for several days, for a few weeks or months down the line. That means hundreds of bored passengers every day, and a negative perception of the plane and the airline.

Streaming video, like the version United's planning to launch, is very attractive to airlines. Seat-back displays cost carriers thousands of dollars a pop, and outfitting an entire aircraft is very expensive, even before you factor in maintenance and costs to upgrade once a better solution becomes available. Displays at each seat also add significant weight, which causes each plane to burn pricey fuel more quickly. So, instead of installing TVs, many carriers are opting to let passengers use the tablets and laptops they already have to access content on a server in the aircraft's belly.

Bring your own Device

It's a means to the same end. You get to be entertained, and the airline can collect that coveted ancillary revenue. Even though it's rarely in HD, the content you watch on your tablet or laptop will often look much better than what you'd get with an aging seat-back screen, and passengers on red-eye flights won't have to deal with the light from unused displays filling the cabin and keeping them awake. You will be on the hook for power (many planes now have outlets installed at every seat), and your device will likely get in the way during the meal service, if there is one, but the trade-offs are worthwhile, for airlines and passengers alike.

Gogo, the most prolific in-flight internet provider, also leads the market when it comes to streaming-entertainment service. More than 1,500 American, Delta, US Airways and Scoot (an Asian low-cost carrier) planes have Gogo Vision installed, and Aeromexico, Alaska and JAL are scheduled to carry it, too. Most of the planes with Gogo's WiFi have Vision available as well -- the company can use the existing WiFi infrastructure, adding only a content loader in the cabin for maintenance to refresh movies and television shows using a USB flash drive. Alaska Airlines is planning to install a unique version of the system that excludes internet access, so passengers can still stream content on routes without coverage.

A USB flash duplicator copies streaming content onto loader drives at Gogo's Chicago headquarters.

A USB flash duplicator copies streaming content onto loader drives at Gogo's Chicago headquarters.

Global Eagle, the company behind the Row 44 satellite internet installed on Southwest's fleet, takes streaming content one step further with live TV. If your plane is connected to the web, you'll also have access to streaming television content. Dish provides that service on Southwest's 737s, where you can choose from 19 live channels and up to 75 recorded TV episodes on each flight. You can also purchase movies for $5 each, with more than 25 titles available on each plane. Like Gogo, Global Eagle can stream content to customers on planes that aren't connected to the web. That product, called WISE, is already installed on some of Philippine Airlines' planes, and it's scheduled to launch with a second Asian carrier soon.

LiveTV is another major in-flight WiFi player in the US. That company was formerly a JetBlue subsidiary, but was recently acquired by Thales Group, a French aerospace conglomerate. Unfortunately, LiveTV executives, who now report to Thales, were unable to detail their future offerings, but we do know the company has been hard at work installing speedy Ka-band satellite WiFi on JetBlue's A320s and United's 737s.

The airlines play a big part in how you use this technology, too. While Global Eagle, Gogo and LiveTV install the systems used to provide content, each carrier sets pricing. Most movies and TV shows available through Delta Studio, a Gogo service, are free for international, First Class and Economy Comfort passengers, for example, though other airlines can charge anywhere from $1 to $7 per program, depending on pricing models and studio arrangements. If you're able to stream content from a third-party site, such as Hulu, you'll likely pay an upcharge for faster in-flight service, so even if you don't purchase programming from the airline, it'll still collect a fee.

Streaming from the web

JetBlue's trying something different with its Fly-Fi in-flight internet. Instead of blocking access to bandwidth-heavy streaming sites, the airline's allowing you to view content (even in HD) from a variety of websites, assuming you're willing to pay a relatively high fee. ViaSat provides the satellite service, which is capable of supporting many passengers streaming video simultaneously. Even if you watch several movies over the course of a flight, however, it probably isn't worthwhile to pay the $9-per-hour fee (that adds up to $45 for a single five-hour flight) -- you'll end up spending less if you download rentals while you're still on the ground.

As for Gogo, Chief Commercial Officer Ash ElDifrawi expects future generations of its service to enable streaming content from outside the plane, be that live television or media already available over the internet, through sites like Hulu and Netflix. Gogo's current air-to-ground service isn't fast enough for HD streaming, but the company's next-generation GTO (ground-to-air) product should support it. That satellite system could also enable the company to offer live TV, like the Global Eagle service you'll find on Southwest's planes, but Gogo's next-generation infrastructure is still a few years out.

"At some point, we see an opportunity for products like IPTV, music and other media content," ElDifrawi said. "We also see an opportunity for streaming through connectivity as more bandwidth becomes available."

Of course, a TV-less future impacts the flight crew, especially just before takeoff -- without seat-back or overhead displays, crews will need to do a live safety demo before each flight. That means reading a script over the PA as flight attendants throughout the cabin show you how to fasten your seatbelt, use an oxygen mask and put on a life vest. It's a time-consuming task and removes flight attendants from other duties, such as checking the cabin thoroughly before takeoff.

While inconvenient for the crew, the pros still outweigh the cons for airlines that barely break even on any given flight. Revenue from streaming services could impact a route's profitability, while a screen-free cabin helps the carrier trim some fat, resulting in a lighter aircraft that burns less fuel. As with in-flight WiFi, it may take a while for streaming services to become a compelling option for all passengers, but the next time you board a plane that doesn't have TVs, know that the future looks very bright.

[Photo credit: Boeing (empty cabin and flight attendant)]