In-Flight Wireless: Can the Airlines Even Give it Away?

In-flight wireless may just be the greatest airline perk ever. I mean, just think about how far modern technology has come: You can now surf the Internet on a plane in the air with no wires. Amazing, right? Airlines can't add it fast enough, and those that don't are ridiculed for being out of touch and woefully out-of-date.

And therein lies the great conundrum of in-flight wireless: As cool as it is, and as much as the airlines tout their service, passengers simply don't want to pay for it. You may recall that while testing wireless on its planes, Alaska Airlines saw plenty of enthusiasm for free access, but found a huge drop in interest when it charged a mere dollar. There's even speculation that Aircell, whose Gogo in-flight wireless system is arguably the most widely used, averages only six users per flight.

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In attempting to explain this, The Economist points to a fundamental disconnect between passenger expectations and airline pricing policy: we're used paying a monthly fee at home and getting free wireless everywhere else. The concept of pay-per-use Internet is anathema to us, especially now that hotels have largely stopped charging for access. No surprise, then, that Aircell offers monthly packages geared toward frequent flyers.

Other problems exist as well, such as cramped quarters and a lack of power outlets at many seats.

So what's an airline to do? If you guessed "make in-flight wireless free for a limited time and hope people love it so much they'll pay for it in the future," you're right!

In the past few weeks, we've seen free Wi-Fi offers and promotions from American (earlier in November), Delta (for Thanksgiving), United (through December 21), and Virgin America, (offer in effect through January 10). Back in October, I received a surprise free trial aboard American, and AirTran and Delta both have free trial codes you can use. AirTran, the largest carrier with fleetwide service, has a buy-one-get-one deal available through December. And American, which is really hanging its hat on the perk, just released a widget that allows customers to see which flights have the service.

Of course, there's no guarantee these offers will work as planned, and if anything it seems likely that more offers are still to come, possibly for the Christmas travel period. But eventually something has to give. If people don't start paying for wireless, what do the airlines do? Offer it for free and absorb the cost into your ticket? As The Economist points out, that works well for some other transportation companies (the commuter rail in Massachusetts, for example, features free wireless), so perhaps it would work for the airlines as well.

But one has to wonder: Will the perk to end all perks ever be more than just a really cool idea? The jury's out for now. In the meantime, here's a table of what each airline offers:

AirTran

Entire fleet

American

All 767-200s, some MD-80s

Continental In process of installation
Delta 300+ aircraft
JetBlue One aircraft with limited access
Southwest In process of installation
United Entire p.s fleet
US Airways In process of installation (51 Airbus A321s by early 2010)
Virgin America Entire fleet
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