Are airlines contemplating free wireless access in the air?
There’s speculation in the blogosphere, fueled by an AP report, that free WiFi might be coming soon. If it does, it will be the first free benefit in several years. As has been discuees here and eslwhere, add-on fees for what was once free have mushroomed in the last three years. Fees are now charged for food, checked bags, a preferred seat, blanket and pillow and on Spirit carry-on bags intended for the overhead to all but elite fliers, adding tens of millions of dollars to airlines’ coffers.
Passengers seem to be drawing the line at paying for inflight wireless Internet connections, which are available on some flights for $4-$13. It seems that many are unwilling to pay for what is available for free on land, including at an increasing number of airports. According to the AP report, “Airlines have offered promotions, including some free service, to draw attention to their Wi-Fi. But experts say only about 10 percent of passengers on Web-enabled flights have taken advantage.” United Airlines, for instance, offered free WiFi to transcontinenal passengers late last year.
The piece also quoted airline technology consultant Michael Planey as believing that “Wi-Fi will be free as early as mid-2011. But if airlines want to go that route, there’s a catch: They still have to compensate the service provider, such as Aircell, whose Gogo Inflight Internet serves every major airline except Southwest.”
Again according to the AP report, Planey thinks airlines airlines have a few options to cover the costs:
•Getting big companies like Google or Verizon to sponsor free Internet service. Those providers would make money through advertisements.
•Pay for some part of the service themselves and then use it to cut costs. For example, a flight attendant could use the inflight Wi-Fi to connect with reservations at the terminal and make new arrangements for passengers who missed a connecting flight.
•Airlines could arrange ways to get a commission when travelers buy things online.
Some experts feel that the discount carriers that already promote their policies of giving passengers more for less (e.g., AirTrans, JetBlue and Southwest), will be the first to offer free WiFi.