In-flight Wi-Fi

Moving closer to free in-flight Wi-Fi

My story this week for CNBC online is all about the (possible) move to free Wi-Fi in the sky.

Who’s doing it? Should we have it? Will we have it? Give this story a read and let me know if you think we are indeed on our way to having free Wi-Fi in the sky:

It wasn’t all that long ago (2000 or 2006, depending how you measure) that being able to access the internet on an airplane was a pie-in-the-sky idea. 

Once the technology became generally available and airlines began equipping their planes with Wi-Fi service, passengers soon found they couldn’t bear to fly without it.

In 2013, 66% of passengers surveyed by Honeywell Aerospace said the availability of in-flight Wi-Fi would influence their flight selection.

By 2018, Inmarsat’s Inflight Connectivity Survey found that more than half (55%) of all airline passengers considered inflight Wi-Fi to be a crucial amenity. And almost as many (53%) said they’d be willing to forgo an alcoholic drink, tea, coffee, and other in-flight amenities in exchange for Wi-Fi access.

The price of staying connected in the sky

While free messaging is available on Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines and on a variety of international airlines, most all domestic airlines levy a charge for accessing the internet for email, streaming and other purposes.

And the cost to access that Wi-Fi varies. Sometimes widely. 

Southwest Airlines charges $8 a day for its Wi-Fi service, which prohibits access to Netflix and other high-bandwidth applications. Gogo, which provides inflight Wi-Fi to airlines such as United, Delta, Alaska and Air Canada, sells a variety of buy-before-you-fly passes. Order ahead and you’ll pay $7 for one hour of Wi-Fi access on domestic flights and $19 for 24 hours of Wi-Fi access on domestic flights.

Wait until you’re in the air to buy Wi-Fi access, though, and on most airlines the cost will be much higher.

How much higher? “Prices will vary,” is all several airlines will tell you. And it is rare, if ever, that purchasing an hour or a full day of Wi-Fi access is cheaper once you’re up in the air.  

But the tide on paid inflight Wi-Fi may be turning.

In 2016 JetBlue became the first domestic airline to offer its Fly-Fi streaming-quality Wi-Fi service free on all its planes.

Now Delta Air Lines is taking its first steps towards offering free Wi-Fi as well.

The Atlanta-based carrier started a two-week pilot test on May 13 that includes free Wi-Fi on around 55 domestic short, medium and long-haul flight segments a day.

“Customers are accustomed to having access to free Wi-Fi during nearly every other aspect of their journey, and Delta believes it should be free when flying, too,” said Ekrem Dimbiloglu, Delta’s Director of Onboard Product, in a statement, “Testing will be key to getting this highly complex program right – this takes a lot more creativity, investment and planning to bring to life than a simple flip of a switch.”

The test flight segments change daily; passengers learn if they’re on a free Wi-Fi flight from a pre-flight email or via a push notification from the Fly Delta app. Gate agents and flight attendants are also making announcements.

Only free ‘basic’ Wi-Fi is offered as part of the test, so passengers who need a more robust service for streaming will have to purchase the paid service. Right now it costs $16 for a North America Wi-Fi day-pass on Delta, if purchased pre-flight.

Is free in-flight Wi-Fi here to stay? And will other carriers follow?  

“It’s nice to see an airline offering a desired amenity on a complimentary basis,” said travel industry analyst and Atmosphere Research Group founder Henry Harteveldt, “But I’m uncertain whether Delta will be able to increase its market share, customer preference or revenue premium enough to warrant offering the free Wi-Fi.”  

Other industry experts expect Delta will continue down the full-time free Wi-Fi path, though, and that other airlines will have no choice but to follow.

“Delta tends to go first with these kinds of customer-friendly initiatives,” said Seth Kaplan, an aviation journalist and author of the book “Glory Lost and Found: How Delta Climbed from Despair to Dominance in the Post-9/11.” Kaplan said American Airlines and United Airlines sometimes match Delta rather than lose customers, even if they’re reluctant to do so. “But Delta’s move makes widespread free Wi-Fi much more likely than it seemed until recently,” said Kaplan.

Another reason passengers might soon enjoy widespread free inflight Wi-Fi: millennials.

“Millennials and younger generations expect free Wi-Fi access everywhere, especially when they are traveling,” said Kelly Soderlund, a travel trends expert with Hipmunk, “Much like hotels, which have been successful in leveraging consumer loyalty through free Wi-Fi, I would expect airlines to follow suit and meet that demand.”

Fast in-flight Wi-Fi: more important than legroom or lavs?

Not everyone wants or needs Wi-Fi access on a plane. For those who do, fast and reliable Wi-Fi is a such a priority, some say they’d even forgo access to the lavatory to get it, according to an industry survey.

Honeywell Aerospace, one of the companies that makes equipment for in-flight Wi-Fi service, surveyed 3,000 in-flight Wi-Fi users from London, the United States and Singapore and found that nearly 90 percent (86 percent in the United States; 89 percent in London; and 87 percent in Singapore;) would be willing to give up a physical amenity such as legroom, a reclining seat, preferred seating and even access to the bathroom in exchange for better in-flight connectivity.

The online survey was conducted via email invitation between May 15 and June 10 and polled 2,008 Americans, 508 Londoners and 501 Singaporeans ages 18 and over who used in-flight Wi-Fi in the prior 12 months.

In the survey, 61 percent of Americans (compared with 59 percent in London and 53 percent in Singapore,) said not having Wi-Fi during their entire flight would be worse than having a seat that doesn’t recline. About 76 percent of Americans (and 73 percent in both London and Singapore,) said a slow Wi-Fi connection was more irksome than slow snack and beverage services during a flight.

And, in exchange for the best Wi-Fi service possible, 42 percent of Americans said they’d be happy to forgo the in-flight snacks, 22 percent would give up beverage service and 13 percent (17 percent in London and 22 percent in Singapore) would trade away their lavatory privileges.

“Wi-Fi is becoming an important amenity and one that can’t be brought on-board by consumers as food and drinks can be,” said Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorksCompany, a consulting organization, “That might explain why travelers are so eager for it.”

In most cases, the number of travelers who said they’d actually give up an amenity in exchange for a better Wi-Fi signal was sharply lower than those who simply rated fast Wi-Fi as highly desirable. But these results show that “in-flight Wi-Fi is no longer a luxury, but considered a part of what passengers expect in travel comfort.” said Bill Kircos, Honeywell Aerospace vice president of Communications.

But no matter what this vendor-sponsored survey says, for now, “the majority of travelers absolutely will not trade off amenities they consider to be more essential, such as legroom, for Wi-Fi,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Hudson Crossing.

A February survey by TripAdvisor of 2,000 travelers underlines his point. While one quarter of respondents said they’d choose one airline over another if it offered in-flight Wi-Fi, the top five biggest complaints about air travel were uncomfortable seats/limited legroom, airline fees and ticket prices, unpredictable flight delays, long security lines and annoyances from loud children and other passengers—not slow Wi-Fi.

“Some passengers will prefer to stay offline while aloft and others consider Wi-Fi to be as essential as the bar cart,” Harteveldt told CNBC by email. “I’m writing you to now from a plane, so I’d certainly put myself in the latter group. But not everyone in my row, or the rows ahead or behind me, is online.”

Still, technology marches on. And while no one has yet devised a way keep babies from crying on airplanes, faster and more reliable in-flight Wi-Fi is on the way.

Kircos said Honeywell Aerospace and its partners are working on a satellite-based system that will provide “a high-speed, consistent and across-ocean wireless connectivity experience.” Other companies, including Row 44, a subsidiary of Global Eagle Entertainment, are working on services they say will do the same. And on Wednesday, Gogo, which currently provides in-flight connectivity to more than 2,000 commercial aircraft and more than 6,500 business aircraft, announced a new hybrid technology that it says will perform at least six times faster than the current service. “Gogo is adding an extra ‘down’ connection from the satellites to its ground-based system. Together, it promises a big bump,” said John Walton, director of data for Routehappy.

The service will be available in the second half of 2014, with Virgin America as the launch partner.

(My story about what passengers might give up in exchange for faster in-flight Wi-Fi first appeared on the CNBC Road Warrior blog.)

Helpful freebies for travelers heading to Thanksgiving

Holiday travel can get mighty hectic. And if something goes wrong this Wednesday- the day before Thanksgiving and the notorious “busiest travel day of the year” – an inconvenience can turn into a disaster.

So it’s nice to know that the travel insurance and assistance company Travel Guard North America will be offering emergency travel assistance services free to all U.S. travelers on Wednesday, November 23.

The company’s services include flight rebooking, hotel booking, emergency cash coordination and message relay, as well as emergency medical assistance such as referrals, access to air ambulances, medical providers and more.
It’s a service I hope you won’t need to use. But if you do, here’s the number: (866) 644-6811.

And on Wednesday, if you manage to avoid travel emergencies and find yourself on a plane equipped with GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi, you’ll be able to jump online –free – for 30 minutes of shopping courtesy of a Fly & Buy promotion with Nordstrom’s, Target, Wal-Mart, Amazon and other retail companies. The promotion runs through January 2, 2012, but for the Wednesday’s kick-off some companies will be throwing in extras.

Home store is entering each customer in a Fly & Buy contest to win a $5,000.00 shopping spree and also handing out in-flight shopping vouchers in several terminals at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Will in-flight Wi-Fi kill seat-back entertainment?

(From my post earlier this week for’s Overhead Bin)


On the ground, the Internet, Wi-Fi and portable mobile devices have completely transformed everything from shopping, working and dating to how we get our news and entertainment. But what about off the ground?

One of the last spaces yet to be completely changed by the Internet is the airline cabin, where in-flight entertainment systems with content controlled by the airline and delivered on seatback screens are still the norm.

But now that in-flight Wi-Fi is fast becoming ubiquitous and affordable — in some cases, free — and as an increasing number of people travel with their own mobile devices, many predict seatback systems will soon go the way of LPs, cassette tapes and film cameras.

“Connectivity will destroy the walled garden,” said Greg Dicum, co-founder and president of MondoWindo, a company that provides web-based, location-aware content to passengers traveling on Wi-Fi equipped planes. “I see no seatback systems on new planes in five years. Especially not on planes flying heavily traveled routes less than five hours in North America, Europe and Asia.

Dicum made his comments at the 2011 Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) Expo in Seattle.

“It’s going to be harder to compete,” he said. People with their own devices who can get to a browser are going to be able to get much better content. And I, for one, would rather have the airline carry my bag or give me some legroom than buy me talking dog movies I have no intention of viewing.”

In an exhibition hall filled with scores  of companies selling the latest in in-flight entertainment equipment and content, few agreed with Dicum’s declarations.

“It may happen. It probably will happen, but so far it’s not happening,” said Adrian Lambert, the head of marketing for IFE Services, a provider of in-flight entertainment. “Airlines moves quite slowly.”

“Yes, more people will bring their own devices, but are my mom and dad going to take an iPod or iTouch with them on vacation?” said Christopher Mondragon, senior manager, design and brand development for Thales Avionics, a provider of in-flight entertainment and connectivity systems.

As he demonstrated one of the company’s latest products — a screen that can be operated by gestures instead of a touchpad — and shared details about the company’s experiments with 3-D programming, he added, “I think it’s going to be more about merging technologies, being innovative and providing a unique experience to any age group.”

What do you think?  WILL in-fight Wi-Fi made seat-back entertainment systems on airplanes obsolete?


Free in-flight Wi-Fi for the holidays

Yesterday Google Chrome announced that it is partnering with AirTran Airways, Delta, and Virgin America to offer passengers free Gogo Inflight Wi-Fi from November 20, 2010 through January 2, 2011.

That’s great news, of course, but I had a few questions:

What about those folks who’ve already purchased monthly “Gogo Unlimited” packages?

Not to worry, say the folks at AirCell, who have so far installed the Gogo inflight internet on 1033 (and counting) aircraft:

“During the Google promotion, we will work with each individual to meet their upcoming travel needs. We encourage Gogo Unlimited customers to contact our Care team at”

OK. But what airports?

Last year Google’s Holiday Wi-Fi program sponsored free Wi-Fi at close to 50 airports.  Some of those airports were already offering free Wi-Fi and over the past year a few airports have switched from paid to free Wi-Fi service. But there are still plenty of airports where sending a few emails requires the purchase of a 24-hour Wi-Fi pass.

Earlier this year there was talk of Google partnering with airports to offer not only free Wi-Fi, but free long distance phone calls and other sure-to-be-appreciated perks. Today a Google spokesperson told me that’s not going to happen.

But Santa-Google, we’ve been good. As long as you’re sponsoring all that free in-flight Wi-Fi, why not throw in a bit of free Wi-Fi for travelers who will find themselves stuck at the airport this holiday season?