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I remember listening to the on-board program with headphones that consisted of hollow hoses as a kid. You plugged them into small holes in the arm-rests. The program was the same for everybody.

Why was the system in place? Why was it phased out?

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    $\begingroup$ Do you really want to listen to the drone of the engines for 3.5 hours? $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak May 3 '15 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ Why? Because passengers are people too, and appreciate some entertainment while crammed into a noisy uncomfortable seat between two other smelly people and only a tiny window to look at the view. And phased out? Quite the opposite, in-flight entertainment systems have simply changed technology. $\endgroup$ – Greg Hewgill May 3 '15 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ Why was it pneumatic? Presumably because that was much cheaper. (incidentally, "pneumatic" is better than "acoustic" for the title. as all headphones are acoustic). $\endgroup$ – cpast May 3 '15 at 22:33
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, pneumatics used to be cheaper and more reliable, nowadays it is the opposite thanks to improvements in digital technology. And the same holds for audio quality, I think. (For a system with a large number of headphones.) $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi May 3 '15 at 22:54
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    $\begingroup$ @SentryRaven I don't think this is a dupe. The excellent answer to that question doesn't really touch on this one. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby May 4 '15 at 9:10
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Well, the rubber hoses themselves were used instead of traditional electromag transducer headphones for two main reasons; first, the hoses were much cheaper than a decent pair of traditional headphones at the time, and to an extent they're washable, so airlines could provide a pair for everyone at a much lower pricepoint than traditional headphones. Second, the hoses were more or less useless without the driving system aboard the aircraft, largely removing the incentive for passengers to walk off with them, again reducing costs of providing the system to passengers. The system was phased out in favor of simple 1/8" stereo jacks at each seat in the '80s and '90s as portable audio became mainstream, and as airlines looked to dramatically slash costs in the face of deregulation beginning in 1978. Economies of scale meant that buying cheapo Walkman-style headphones in bulk became cheaper than maintaining the aging pneumatic systems, and the electric-based system was more reliable and had several advantages (such as volume control for each passenger, and if standard 1/8" jacks were used, the ability for a savvy flyer to bring their own, nicer pair for use on the flight).

As an aside, this pneumatic audio system is still used today for a very different purpose; newborn hearing screenings. A pair of flaps with a mild adhesive are stuck to baby's ears, then hoses lead back to a finely-calibrated audio system coupled to an EEG. Audio is played and the EEG is monitored to detect the response to the sound in baby's brain. The hose system is used because it allows the expensive, fine-tolerance part of the audio system to be reused from test to test, while the hoses themselves are disposable and (as hospital equipment goes) fairly inexpensive.

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I'll answer your second question first that why pneumatic headphones were phased out.

The simple answer would be that a better technology was available, and affordable on commercial level. Questions like DVDs replacing CDs, or why 3.5" floppy disks replacing their 5.25" counterparts, DSLRs replacing SLRs are all on the same lines.

Electric headsets have several advantages in terms of quality of audio, durability, lower cost of production and longevity.

Why pneumatic headphones, or as a matter any headphones, were used in an airplane relates to why in-flight entertainment was places in airplanes? By 1960s, in-flight entertainment was getting popular and airlines were using it as marketing tool. As this evolved, headphones (pneumatic at the time) jacks were added for each passenger so that if a passenger doesn't want to be entertained, can choose to do so.


Though this is not directly related, this question What was the inflight entertainment in the early seventies? has some excellent information about in-flight entertainment, which does talk about pneumatic headphones too.

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