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Bluetooth is finally coming to airplane seatback entertainment systems

United Airlines may not always live up to its slogan of “Fly the friendly skies” — especially with ongoing incidents of passengers being removed from flights under questionable circumstances — but the company is on the verge of making air travel a lot friendlier for folks with wireless headphones. The company has just placed a massive order for 270 Boeing and Airbus planes that will have Bluetooth-enabled seatback entertainment systems for every seat.

As part of the announcement, United also said that it will be undertaking a retrofit of 100% of its existing mainline fleet that will include similar seatback entertainment upgrades with Bluetooth connectivity. Until now, if you wanted to use an airplane’s built-in entertainment system, you had to either bring your own wired set of earbuds, use a set provided by the airline (sometimes for a fee), or bring along a headphone jack-to-Bluetooth adapter.

It’s a striking about-face for airline observers: For several years, United appeared to be on a path to eliminate seatback entertainment systems on its planes, encouraging its passengers to rely on their personal devices for in-flight music and movies. The move also represents a turning point for an industry that has been slow to allow the use of wireless technologies, citing various safety concerns over the years. Clearly, those concerns have now been sufficiently addressed.

What’s less clear is how hundreds of potential wireless headphone users will pair their Bluetooth devices to the seatbacks simultaneously. Typically, when you pair a set of headphones to a smartphone, your headphones are the only ones in pairing mode within 15-30 feet of your phone, making it easy to identify them in your phone’s list of available Bluetooth devices.

But what happens when you pull up the seatback system’s pairing screen only to be confronted with multiple instances of “AirPods” or “Bose QC 35 II”? Let’s hope United figures out a way to manage such a wireless traffic jam. Otherwise, we could see the rise of an entirely new type of air rage.

United appears to be the first major American carrier to commit to Bluetooth support, but it likely won’t be the last. As more and more electronics companies banish headphone jacks from smartphones and other devices, passengers who own wired earbuds or headphones are on the decline, which should prove to be plenty of incentive for other airlines to follow suit.

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Simon Cohen
Contributing Editor, A/V
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