Imagine a world where you don’t have to play jump rope over headphone wires every time you climb into or out of your airplane seat, settle for a set of subpar provided plug-in earbuds to enjoy the inflight entertainment, or remove your wireless headphones to hear about the snack selection from your friendly flight attendant. Too utopian? Perhaps. But United Airlines and Apple believe it is possible.
United last week unveiled bold plans to install Bluetooth technology on hundreds of its airplanes so that travelers who want to use their wireless headphones when watching their seatback screens can do so with ease—plans that make United the first major U.S. airline to completely overhaul its fleet with the wire-free tech and that United believes will ultimately be enhanced with the use of Apple’s latest wireless AirPods.
“When we saw the new features of Apple’s AirPods Pro . . . we really felt like this showcased how tech could aid you on your journey,” Jason Birnbaum, United’s chief information officer, said at a press event last week held in a United hangar at San Francisco International Airport. There, representatives from both United and Apple detailed the benefits of using United and Apple tech in tandem.
United has already outfitted more than 100 aircraft—including all of its Boeing 737 MAX 8 and the majority of its Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes—with seatback screens that have Bluetooth technology and will make it available on more than 800 airplanes by 2032. Each time the seatback screens featuring Bluetooth connectivity are installed on an airplane, the technology is being made available on all seats, from the front of the plane to the back, United told AFAR. Customers flying on a Bluetooth-ready airplane will receive a predeparture email notifying them that there will be Bluetooth available onboard, similar to how fliers are notified when Wi-Fi will be available inflight.
Any wireless headphones can be paired with United’s new seatback Bluetooth technology, not just Apple products, but Apple highlighted some of the new features embedded in the company’s latest AirPods Pro that can enhance the wireless headphone experience for travelers. Those include an option called “conversation awareness,” which lowers the volume and noise cancellation level when the user begins speaking with someone (for instance, when conversing with a flight attendant during food and beverage service, or even earlier in the journey, while going through TSA security lines), and “adaptive audio,” which adjusts both the listening volume and noise cancellation levels based on the user’s surroundings. The AirPods Pro’s “transparency mode” allows users to hear their surroundings as they would with no headphones on, and “active noise cancellation” will drown out surrounding noises (such as the sound of the airplane engine or other passengers), letting users focus on the content they’re listening to and watching.
“People want to stay connected while they’re in the air, but there’s also a lot of interactions between our crew and customers,” said Birnbaum.
At the event, Apple representatives walked reporters through the process of pairing a Bluetooth device (in this case the AirPods Pro) with United’s newly retrofitted planes.
Here’s how it works:
- Once seated on a United aircraft with Bluetooth pairing via the seatback screen, turn on the screen and select the Bluetooth icon from the toolbar near the bottom of the seatback screen monitor.
- Make sure your wireless headphones are disconnected from other devices and activate Bluetooth connectivity on the headphones—usually by holding down the Bluetooth button until it starts blinking.
- When your Bluetooth-activated headphones are in pairing mode, you can select the device from the Bluetooth drop-down menu.
As a bit of a Luddite, I definitely benefited from the assistance of Apple and United reps to help me get connected at first, but I could see how after a few tries, finding and establishing a wireless connection would become more seamless. We also got to experience the conversation awareness feature of the AirPods Pro and how it brings down the noise cancellation barrier as soon as you begin to speak—which was actually pretty cool.
For United flights that don’t have built-in Bluetooth capabilities, or on other carriers that don’t have the technology, there are Bluetooth plug-in devices such as the AirFly adapter by Twelve South (which retails for $55) that you can connect to the headphone jack to pair a wireless device. And even Birnbaum admitted that for now, travelers would be wise to still bring a wired backup option in case the Bluetooth connectivity doesn’t end up being available on an upcoming United flight. (For instance, even if it’s supposed to be available, a last-minute aircraft maintenance swap could mean that an older airplane without the tech fills in for a newer one.)
United is currently the only major U.S. carrier to offer Bluetooth connectivity throughout its aircraft via seatback screens. (Delta Air Lines provides Bluetooth pairing in the first-class cabins on its newest Airbus A321neo planes, which debuted last year.) Several international airlines are making the technology more readily available on seatback screens as well, including Air France, Etihad, and Qatar Airways.
United’s Bluetooth upgrades are part of a much larger investment the airline is making in its fleet, including tech-driven enhancements to the first-class product (such as wireless charging and high-definition screens with a companion remote), and new soft amenities in the United Polaris international business-class cabin designed to enhance sleep.
Earlier this month, United announced that is has put in an order for 110 additional airplanes with delivery beginning in 2028. Not only will they allow United to expand its domestic and global network, but the new planes, which include 50 Boeing 787-9s and 60 Airbus A321neos, will all include seatback screens with Bluetooth connectivity and “fast Wi-Fi,” according to the airline. They will also have “enough overhead room for everyone’s carry-on”—a lofty vision for expanded overhead bin space that United first unveiled prior to the pandemic.
United says that 75 percent of its fleet will be what the airline considers “new-generation” and outfitted with these promised enhancements by 2030.