Bluetooth is finally coming to airplane seatback entertainment systems

United Airlines may not always live up to its “Fly the friendly skies” tagline — 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 more comfortable for people with wireless Internet headsets. The company has just placed a large order for 270 Boeing and Airbus planes that will have Bluetooth-enabled entertainment systems for every seat.

As part of the announcement, United also said it will perform a retrofit of 100% of its existing mainline fleet that will include similar Bluetooth-enabled seatback entertainment upgrades. Until now, if you wanted to use the in-flight entertainment system, you had to bring your own wired set of headphones, use a set provided by the airline (sometimes for a fee), or bring a headphone jack-Bluetooth adapter with you.

It’s a stunning reversal for airline watchers: For several years, United appeared on track to remove seatback entertainment systems from its planes, encouraging its passengers to rely on their personal devices for in-flight music and movies. The move also marks a milestone for an industry that has been slow to allow the use of wireless technologies, citing various security concerns over the years. It is clear that these concerns have now been sufficiently addressed.

What’s less clear is how hundreds of potential wireless headset users will pair their Bluetooth devices with seatbacks at the same time. Typically, when you pair your headphones with 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.

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

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

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