Bradenberg Airport

Airport Wi-Fi: free, but why so stingy?


One of the most requested, used and appreciated amenities at airports these days is free wireless internet access.

And, in more and more airports, travelers are finding that Wi-Fi access is indeed free.

But the definition of “free” seems to be changing.

The trend for a while there was for airports to offer passengers unlimited use of Wi-Fi, making it possible to turn an irritating hour or two wait for a flight into productive work time.  But then some airports, such as Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental, began offering free Wi-Fi for limited time periods, forcing travelers who needed more time to purchase the service.

I wrote about what seemed to be that emerging trend in June, 2011, in my on-line “At the Airport” column on USA Today. (Should you pay for Wi-Fi? Airports explore tiered service.)

Three recent free Wi-Fi announcements underscore what now seems to be an official “sort-of-free” trend.

Earlier this week, it was announced that when Berlin’s new Brandenburg Airport (finally) opens, next March, passengers will be able to access basic complimentary Wi-Fi service for 30 minutes. (Somewhat troubling, users will only be able to access the service by entering a credit or debit card number.)

Travelers needing more than 30 minutes of Wi-Fi access (and, really, who doesn’t) will have to purchase a premium service – with higher bandwidth – from the contracted service provider, Boingo.

After some controversy over the fast-tracking of an interim Wi-Fi provider contract while what could be a two-year process to find a company to replace T Mobile gets underway, complimentary Wi-Fi should begin at Los Angeles International Airport in July.

Passengers will get access to 45 minutes of Internet service provided by Advanced Wireless after watching a 15- to 30-second advertisement.

And on Wednesday, Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) announced that, in September, Boingo would begin offering a limited complimentary Wi-Fi access service as well.

At DTW, access to the airport’s wireless network for 30 minutes will be offered for no cost after viewing a 30-second video advertisement. “Users who require an extended or high-speed connection will continue to have the option to connect via one of Boingo’s existing service plans,” the airport said in a statement.

What’s up?

Some say that airports are taking a page from airlines, which now charge for services – such as checked baggage and seat assignments – that were once considered part of the ticket package. Boingo corporate communications director Christian Gunning says that the trend of airports offering tiered wireless access (free for s short time; then access to premium service for a fee) allows airports to generate revenue from both casual and more serious users.

Via e-mail he said, “Some of the airports really need every extra bit of revenue they can muster since they’re operating under big budgetary deficits and some manage to generate healthy revenues from alternate concessions (think slot machines in Las Vegas). … It’s pretty complicated overall, and the final outcome is slightly different for each airport we work with.”

Complicated? Sure.

Irritating? You bet.

What travelers might soon encounter at more airports?

Probably, but I hope not.