In May 2004, Lufthansa Airlines became the first commercial airline to offer in-flight Wi-Fi service, with a cost of $30 per full flight or $10 for 30 minutes. The connections were generally slow and spotty and initial use of the service required big, clunky cords, but there was also an undeniable excitement to browsing the internet and sending emails at 30,000 feet. During the last 15 years, Wi-Fi has increasingly become an essential part of our everyday lives. It's not surprising, therefore, that Wi-Fi's role in the travel industry has also matured at a rapid pace. In the last few years, for example, Wi-Fi has become both ubiquitous and predominantly free in hotels. While in-flight Wi-Fi isn't yet at the same level -- in terms of quality, availability or complimentary access -- as hotels, the demand for it certainly is, particularly for the business traveler.
While in-flight Wi-Fi used to be seen as a "nice to have," it has now become absolutely essential, particularly to my clients who are jetting around the world making deals, and must be able to use their airtime as efficiently as possible. The inability to access email, networks and people for hours on end can have a huge impact on both individual and group productivity. For many Road Warriors, that time in the air may very well be all they have to get essential work completed.
At my company, Ovation Travel Group, a $1.4B travel company, we have a lot of clients that refuse to be booked on planes that do not offer Wi-Fi, and I am one of them; as a frequent business traveler myself, I always use in-flight Wi-Fi when available. As such, I am not at all surprised by results from the most recent Inflight Connectivity Survey, with responses from over 9,300 travelers across 32 countries. 67% of survey respondents said they would be more likely to rebook with an airline if in-flight Wi-Fi were available; for business travelers, that number rises to a whopping 83%. Here, then, are 3 of the main issues surrounding in-flight Wi-Fi:
There are two ways to connect to Wi-Fi while flying. The first is through air-to-ground broadband towers, which send signals to an airplane's antennas. As the plane travels, it will automatically connect to signals from the nearest tower. Connectivity can be slow and spotty, then, when a plane isn't close to a tower, such as when crossing an ocean. This May, in-flight Wi-Fi provider Gogo announced plans to build a 5G network on top of its existing infrastructure, which, among other things, will enable more bandwidth, although it won't be available until 2021.
The newer way to connect is via satellite technology. Planes connect to satellites in orbit through an antenna and the Wi-Fi signal is then distributed from an onboard router. While this method is generally faster and more consistent, the equipment is expensive and problems can occur when satellites are overloaded. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, in-flight Wi-Fi provider Viasat's CEO noted, "Every year the number of people who use the system and the bandwidth use both increase."
In terms of basic internet usage, in-flight Wi-Fi is increasingly being used for very practical reasons for the time-sensitive traveler. The most recent International Air Transport Association (IATA) Global Passenger Survey, which involved over 10,400 respondents across 153 countries, identified 3 emerging trends for Wi-Fi usage preferences: searching connecting flight related information, planning the onward journey and filling in customs e-declarations or other e-forms.
Moreover, while pretty much all the major airlines are now equipped with one or both means of connectivity, there are multiple ways airlines are differentiating themselves in term of entertainment offerings. This year, for example, American Airlines launched a partnership with Apple, enabling anyone with an Apple Music subscription to stream that music for free. Additionally, every satellite-equipped American aircraft can stream live TV on 12 different channels. And Delta Air Lines just announced it has equipped its 700th aircraft with in-flight entertainment screens and a new partnership with Hulu.
Over 80 airlines globally offer in-flight Wi-Fi, and the cost can vary quite a bit and can change based on things like route and aircraft model. Fees can be charged by the hour, as a flat rate per flight and even as a monthly or yearly subscription. In fact, an airline may offer all of those options. It's always a good idea to check out an airline's website for the latest pricing models, including searching for what is offered on your upcoming flight.
And finally, it's possible the airline industry may slowly be heading in the direction of hotels, and will eventually be expected to offer complimentary Wi-Fi as the norm. There are currently 10 airlines globally that offer complimentary inflight Wi-Fi to all passengers, and even more that say they are working towards it and/or already offer it free to first class and business class passengers. Out of those 10, only one of those airlines is based in the US: JetBlue. However, that shouldn't be the case for too long. In May, Delta Air Lines ran a two week trial of free Wi-Fi on around 55 domestic flights, and Delta CEO Ed Bastian has said that, "Our goal is to make Wi-Fi free with high-speed quality [...] It will take another year or two to make that happen." Similarly, during a recent earning call, United CEO Scott Kirby said the airline hopes to eventually make Wi-Fi free.
In today's modern society, I have to wonder at the cost of not working towards free Wi-Fi, as the productivity and well-being of Road Warriors is an incredibly important asset to all companies.