— Air travel used to be so easy: Pick a destination, call a travel agent, pay for your ticket, pack, get dressed up, drive to the airport, go.
Now? It’s much more complicated: Choose a destination. Scour the Internet for tickets and fret about locking in the best price. Decide if you’ll carry your bags on the plane or pay to check them in. Try to make it through the security checkpoint with your dignity and your valuables intact. Stock up on food and water before you board. Buy a pillow and blanket from the flight attendant. Then, settle in and elbow your seatmate for a piece of the armrest.
Soon? All of the above, plus choosing which in-flight Wi-Fi plan to buy.
In-flight Wi-Fi options
In the past year, U.S. airlines have begun testing and offering some form of in-flight Wi-Fi service.
JetBlue’s single “BetaBlue” plane has been equipped with a narrowband service that allows travelers to send e-mail and instant messages and plans to begin expanding the service to its A320 fleet sometime this year. American, Delta, United and Virgin America are working with Aircell to offer Gogo broadband Wi-Fi services on a steadily increasing number of planes. Just last week, in fact, American Airlines — the first U.S. airline to get going with Gogo — announced plans to install in-flight broadband in more than 300 of its airplanes in the next two years. Virgin America plans to have all 28 of its planes Wi-Fi enabled by June. (About half are now.) And recently Alaska and Southwest airlines began testing Row 44’s satellite-delivered broadband Wi-Fi services on a few planes.
Most in-flight Wi-Fi services are free during the testing phase, in part to make sure the systems actually work and in part to familiarize travelers with using Wi-Fi in the air. But these days, if an airline can charge for something, it most certainly will. While a JetBlue spokesperson says that the airline plans to continue offering its narrowband service for free, every other U.S. airline is clear about the fact that there will be a Wi-Fi fee.
Will travelers use in-flight Wi-Fi service and if so, how much will they be asked to pay? More to the point: How much would you be willing to pay? Alaska Airlines is asking those who use the free test service to take a survey, which includes a question about how much they’d be willing to pay. A Southwest Airlines spokesperson says the airline will start testing fee structures once technical testing is complete, perhaps this summer.
But Aircell, the company providing in-flight Wi-Fi service for American, Delta, Virgin America, United and soon other airlines, has already set its fee structure and is pegging the price to the distance flown and the access device used.
Which Wi-Fi to buy?
How will that work? Well, on Gogo-equipped flights longer than three hours, you’ll be charged $12.95 to access the Wi-Fi service on your laptop. On flights three hours or less, the price will be $9.95. But if you connect using only a handheld device instead of a laptop, then the price will be “only” $7.95 for the entire flight. Pricing by device and distance seems a bit complicated to me, but in this age of unbundled services, perhaps it makes sense. Especially because there are more people traveling with Wi-Fi-savvy cell phones than with laptops.
Will everyone end up paying for the service? Will each airline charge the same fee?
“Those that are offering the Gogo service will,” says Aircell’s Tom Weigman.
That’s because, for now, the airlines are letting Aircell control the pricing, and Aircell’s goal is to keep the pricing uniform. However, Weigman says while Aircell will try to establish and maintain in-flight Wi-Fi as a premium service and hopes “to avoid the constant giveaway thing,” there may be promotional packages that reduce and in some cases eliminate the charge to passengers entirely.
“There will be times when [an airline] will approach us and say ‘This is what we want to do for the following period.’ ... Or a company may agree to sponsor free service on certain days,” he says.
In fact, Aircell has already been approached about gate-related promotions and tie-ins with advertisers from in-flight airline magazines, Weigman says.
So I’m imagining frequent fliers will soon be scouring the Internet and flight magazines for in-flight Wi-Fi discounts the same way some of us now scour the Sunday papers for money-saving grocery coupons.
I’m also envisioning situations where travelers will find themselves having to choose between paying for Wi-Fi access in the airport or waiting until they’re up in the air. Right now, airports that don’t offer free Wi-Fi access often make it available by the hour or by the day. The hourly charge always seems like highway robbery. And who expects to be at one airport for 24 hours anyway? That in-flight pricing plan pegged at under or over three hours in duration all of a sudden may make a lot more sense.
Actually, what would make even more sense would be having seamless Wi-Fi access between the airport and the sky. Then there’d be one less travel-related decision make.
“Don’t worry!” says Aircell’s Weigman. “We’re already talking with at least one Wi-Fi ground provider that wants to make that happen.”