Several major airlines seem very interested in phasing out screens in airplane seat-backs.

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It was one of the most reliable predictions in all of science fiction: the future may be utopian or dystopian, advanced or regressive, but one thing we knew about the future beyond all possible doubt was the world would be covered in screens. From Blade Runner‘s tower-spanning super screens to the endless advertisements of Minority Report, everybody seemed to agree that screens might just outbreed people over the next twenty or so years. Yet today, we see the opposite trend coming about: fewer, more personal screens are being used to the exclusion of ubiquitous displays out in the wild. Now, airlines seem to be embracing this trend as part of a major cost-cutting measure called BYOD, or bring your own device. Several major airlines seem very interested in phasing out screens in airplane seat-backs.

Now, don’t worry; you should still get access to your necessary in-flight entertainment, but that entertainment will be streamed over the plane’s local wifi network. This means you can half-watch The Expendables 2 on your own phone, tablet, or laptop computer, negating the need to squint into smudged, dead-spot-ridden LCDs. This will be great for those of us with quality portable screens and long battery life, but not everybody is in such an enviable situation. We could really be headed for a future in which economy-class planes and seating sections have more amenities than their first-class cousins. To provide a customer with a complimentary screen is to imply that they don’t have one of their own.

Was Minority Report wrong to predict such an ad-filled hell world?

Not every company is so anti-screen, however. Delta is investing in airplane WiFi for its new fleet, but is also still investing in seat-back screens. Airlines have historically been very slow to adopt new technologies. That’s partly because slow adoption lets them charge for access to basic services, like a spotty telephone hookup or a slow-as-hell satellite internet connection. With an active WiFi network pulsing through the cabin, it will be harder to argue against providing real internet access to every passenger, standard. Also, expensive as screens may be, wirelessly streaming video to hundreds of people simultaneously is no small feat even today. Airlines will likely be making sizable investments in networking, hoping to pay that off through increased profits in tickets and reduced flight weight.

Yes, surprise surprise, this move will increase profits since it categorically will not lead to a reduction in ticket prices. It could even be a way to start charging an extra fee for movie access, since most people will get disgruntled about being sold use of a screen they’re forced to stare straight at for hours, but wireless movie access on your own device? Why, we’re all quite used to paying for such things by now, aren’t we?

Margaret Soto

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