Today, Southwest Airlines announced that it is offering seven channels of live TV shows on some planes, starting with 20 planes this month. The channels include CNBC, Fox Business Network, Fox News, MLB, MSNBC, NBC Sports, and NFL Network.
Presumably, TV will soon be available on all Southwest planes that have installed the equipment necessary for Wi-Fi—now 250, growing to around 400 by the end of next year. Southwest is currently testing how much to charge. Prices could range from $3 to $8 per flight, which will be independent of whether you buy into the more expensive onboard Wi-Fi Internet service.
Southwest is in a good position to offer this service because, unlike most domestic airlines, it uses satellite-based Wi-Fi rather than a system based on ground transmitters. But Southwest isn't the first U.S. carrier with in-flight TV. Frontier, JetBlue, United (some planes) and Virgin America already offer some form of in-flight live TV. And unlike the others, Southwest's system requires that you have your own Wi-Fi-enabled device onboard: a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone.
In-flight Wi-Fi and TV service is likely to be the focus of a lot of what passes for airline competition these days. Most big domestic airlines previously decided to install onboard Wi-Fi—Delta's fleet of larger planes is already fully equipped—and, as far as I can tell, they can add live TV functionality at very little additional cost. The next big move will be to add satellite-based Wi-Fi and presumably TV on intercontinental flights, already starting with a recent announcement from Delta.
Adding another revenue stream—fees from onboard connectivity—at very little incremental cost is a lure that airlines are finding hard to resist. It sure beats improving their economy-class product.
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