Inflight entertainment and technophobia

culture / tech


Inflight entertainment was once a lifeline on commercial jets. Drop-down TVs made all the difference between a bearable multihour flight and an absolute hellslog. Even Will & Grace reruns, played back on a tiny, faded CRT three rows away, were a welcome distraction from the cramped discomfort of the average domestic flight.

The rise of mobile personal devices has changed things. Once, a personal LCD viewscreen with live satellite TV would have seemed like an unimaginable luxury. These days, I switch off that headrest screen without a second thought; I’d rather watch content I like, downloaded onto my own devices.

The airlines have noticed this change—more and more passengers ignoring the cabin-wide entertainment—and they’re updating their planes in response. Why bother with expensive entertainment hardware if people won’t use it. Some jets have even ditched the screens altogether, moving to onboard wifi as a means of distributing movies to customers’ personal devices.

That’s all well and good for digital natives, who can jump through the requisite hoops. I love having a library of recent releases to stream. But the move away from shared entertainment on flights isn’t as welcome for those who struggle with tech—or who don’t have their own smartphone or tablet.

My mother is a good example. As the airlines have shifted away from built-in screens, she’s left without anything to watch. She’s not familiar enough with her cheap Android smartphone to connect to the inflight streaming library. Consider the dance required: download the airline’s app before boarding, enable airplane mode, re-enable wifi, open the settings app, connect to the network, etc., etc. That’s a familiar dance for the young and nerdy; for her, it’s an insurmountable wall. She resigns herself to boredom, sitting quietly through interminable transcontinental flights.

The airlines ought to accommodate edge cases like my mom’s. A little tech support could go a long way on planes without in-cabin screens. Why not invite tech-averse passengers to press the call button to receive help navigating their devices? The steward staff would receive baseline training for Android and iOS—just enough to help get customers connected.

Maybe that’s an unreasonable added burden for an already-overworked inflight staff. And maybe there are too many technophobes onboard the average flight to offer that sort of concierge-level hand-holding.

If so, the airlines probably shouldn’t have removed the shared screens in the first place. ■