Recently traveling with United Airlines for our Nicaragua trip I ran face first into their in-flight entertainment system. My choice of words is literally accurate here, as the system is in-your-face in a most unappreciated way.
The unit consists of a seven inch LCD screen in every seat back, and a small control pad on the arm rest. A selection of movies and shows can be purchased by running a credit card through the slot beside the screen. Content in this system is strictly paid for, there is very little free material, one channel with a sliced up documentary and other segments that are essentially long ads. A preview period is run at the start of the flight with payment required to continue your chosen show.
The unit is also used to replace the traditional cabin safety briefing with a video that runs before takeoff. Aside from the safety briefing you will need headphones with a standard stereo plug to hear the soundtrack.
If you want to remove this annoyance from your seat space you can turn it off. Peace is obtained by holding the brightness button down, waiting until the setting slowly moves to the minimum value and then going off. This takes a full twenty-two seconds from full brightness, the default setting, truly annoying. Yes, I timed it.Could the programmers have at least made a two or three second press equivalent to an off request? This is how a lot of other modern devices work in a similar situation, note the volume adjustment on an iPhone. Apparently the marketing staff wrote the specification in the most inane possible fashion, they want to shove their content at you… Hard.
Of course once you turn the screen off it comes back on to display the safety briefing. This part does make sense, the briefing should be a required part of the preflight. You do not need headphones for this part as the sound is played on the cabin speaker system.
After the safety briefing there are a series of advertisements that can not be shut off. These push the features and offerings of the entertainment system. For someone who just does not want to see this… Tough. They shove their content in your face. At least the mandatory sound shuts off for this part.
The entire system is problematic… The location of the control pad is quite unfortunate. Located on the top of the armrest they cannot be used without moving your whole arm upwards, and possibly elbowing the passenger in the seat beside you. They other option is to reach across and use your opposite hand, also inconvenient. Maybe a child can use the same hand. As an engineer with some human interface experience I would have located the controls on the seat back beside the screen. Not only would this make the controls less annoying to use, but simplified the wiring and maintenance issues of the separate control pad.
The control pad location is situated where it is very easy to accidentally actuate. I was constantly pressing a button with a elbow throughout the flight. Even if you turn the unit off you may find yourself constantly turning it back off after an elbow bump.
There is worse… In the darkened cabin of a night flight most of the screens remain on in the rows about you. Most passengers never figure out how, or never bother to turn the screens off. These screens remain on the default preview channel, flashing the trailers of the latest movies available for viewing. The flashing explosions and fast action create an inescapable bright flicker at the periphery of your vision for hours. After a full day of flying, tired and just trying to get a little rest on the last leg of the journey, this annoyance becomes truly intrusive.
If there is one reason to avoid flying United the intrusive annoyance of this in-flight entertainment system rises very high on the list. For an alternate system consider Alaska Airlines, which I often fly as they also serve the routes I typically need. Alaska uses a “Digi-Player”, essentially a tablet computer, a system that makes far more sense to me. This small portable unit is rented out to those passengers who request the service, and only those passengers. As the units are typically held on the tray table down and out of sight, and there are only a few of them issued on most flights, the result is vastly less annoying to passengers who do not use the system.
United has obviously bought into the current system and it will be a part of the flying experience for some time to come after such a considerable investment. A few simple changes could make the system far more tolerable. Make the off function quick, a two second press of the button? Have the unused units turn off automatically a short while into the flight, particularly on a night flight. If the passenger turns the unit off before the safety briefing, have the unit turn off again after the briefing, honoring the request to be left in peace.
As the control pad cannot be easily changed, at least make the on function a little more difficult to accidentally actuate. Pressing both brightness buttons perhaps? These are all simple software changes that could be made with very minimal cost or effort.
It is also curious that the system can be essentially bypassed on many aircraft by using your own device, the latest version of United app and accessing free streaming en-route. The service appears to work quite well and there is far more to choose from. This streaming service is free as long as you have your own device and install the application. The good news is that this sort of system may very well replace the seat back displays in the near future. Using the customers own devices saves significant costs, reduces aircraft weight, and most likely customer annoyance. Using the system on the last leg of our trip, the only time it was available for me, it worked quite well.
After two long days of international travel on United I have seen quite enough of this in-flight annoyance system. Flying can be tiring enough without the airline actively trying to make it worse. I have sent these comments to United, I do not expect anyone to actually read them however, much less see any changes. The only solution is to not fly United Airlines if I can avoid it.