United Airlines is adding a long-awaited feature to the in-flight entertainment seatback screens of its new Boeing 737 Max 8 jets — support for Bluetooth headphones. The company is making the upgrade as part of “United Next”, a new plan to expand and modernize its fleet with what it says are larger, fuel-efficient jets and a more comfortable in-flight experience.
I haven’t flown in the last two years — for reasons that are hopefully obvious — but the thing that grinds most of my past flying experience to a halt is dealing with the bizarre two-pronged audio jacks airplanes use for inflight audio. Having headphones with a 3.5mm audio jack isn’t hard, but it doesn’t reflect the Bluetooth audio lifestyle, Apple, and plenty of other tech companies have slowly forced me to adopt. I don’t like the wireless audio freak I’ve become, but it happened, which makes United’s upgrades so exciting, as demoed in the tweets below from aviation writer Jason Rabinowitz.
The main attraction of @united's new interior is the new @PanasonicAero seatback IFE system. It finally offers one of the overall most requested passenger items: BLUETOOTH AUDIO. Narrowbody aircraft with these screens will finally make it a reality. #PaxEx pic.twitter.com/tD004G4x7c— Jason Rabinowitz (@AirlineFlyer) June 29, 2021
Adding seatback screens made a huge difference in how tolerable flying is, but it’s been held up by lagging audio support that The Verge has even written a guide to getting around. And this isn’t a problem unique to United. Other airlines like Delta or JetBlue have been offering seatback screens for years, but have also saddled flyers with analog audio. United just might be one of the first airlines to start the next wave of inflight entertainment improvements (hopefully).
However, there’s room for things to go a bit sideways. As part of its upgrades, United’s new 737 Max 8 jets offer 10 or 13-inch inflight entertainment screens on the backs of all seats, which might mean a lot of people trying to connect to Bluetooth at once. That could cause interference, and might also make the process of connecting your headphones more of a chore if you’re having to hunt through multiple devices trying to pair in the same menu. United currently only offers Bluetooth on its Max 8 jets which it says should start flying this summer. The company didn’t share how it plans to address issues with Bluetooth, but said it’s still “studying the technology.”
I can’t rightfully claim that Bluetooth is as meaningful a change as more legroom or safer flights, but for an airline industry hoarding cash to make it through the pandemic and looking to entice frequent flyers to earn their miles again, any snazzy new feature can’t hurt.