Why does in-flight Wi-Fi cost so much?
I had a half-empty plane.
I had Wi-Fi.
I had an electrical outlet.
I had a credit card.
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I had navigated to the Gogo payment page.
Then I had to … look twice.
Yeah, I had to pay $19.99 for an hour of Wi-Fi on this Delta Air Lines flight.
What the heck could I accomplish with an hour of Wi-Fi? Especially with the speed of in-flight Wi-Fi.
Kind of like potato chips — one’s too many; a thousand aren’t enough. An hour would just get me hooked. I’d need Wi-Fi the whole flight.
For that, I’d have to pay $39.99.
The last time I had looked, Wi-Fi on an airplane — and it wasn’t more than six months ago — cost $9.99.
Nowadays, people want to be connected, even in the skies. A recent survey by Honeywell found that passengers so value the Wi-Fi option that they say they’d be willing to go through security twice (not that there’s any reason to do that; they just wanted to elucidate the extent of the pain and suffering we’d be willing to go through to get our email, etc.).
So the big issue is: does my plane have Wi-Fi.
And a just-released data crunch by Routehappy, a flight-amenities search engine, on the global state of in-flight Wi-Fi reports that, of course, more airlines and planes now offer the technology than did last year. The total number of carriers offering Wi-Fi today is 60, eight more from last year.
The report also notes that U.S. airlines are leading the Wi-Fi way, with most of the total fleet wired up for wireless and offering service on more than three-quarters of flights versus overseas airlines, which offer it on average on about 24 percent of flights. (Emirates and Lufthansa lead the pack, offering Wi-Fi on long-haul routes.)
More of that service is coming at high-quality speed (defined by Routehappy as comparable to that you’d get on the ground in your home). The core technology is evolving to allow faster and more reliable connections. Delta, in fact, was among the first to sign up for Gogo’s new 2Ku technology.
But I don’t want to get too technical about all this; the explanations are kind of stultifying. My point is that the current price of Wi-Fi in the skies seems a bit stupefying.
I do remember that when airlines, most via Gogo, started offering connections onboard, they pretty much gave it away, and $4.99 introductory offers were common. That wouldn’t last, obviously, and I was ready for a price more in line with the airline’s usual captive-audience fee scale. The basic service seemed to have settled at about $10 a flight.
Certainly not prohibitive, though whether I and my fellow fliers would actually go for it might also depend on the flight duration and the second part of the device-use-in-flight equation: the availability of a power source to keep electronics alive.
On my Delta flight, all systems were go until that pricing page brought the process to a screeching halt. And I was so annoyed right then that I almost paid for the Wi-Fi just to get online and do some social-media venting about it. Which got me even more annoyed. Could I write that off on my expenses?
I bit my tongue and read a magazine.
I don’t know if I’d even have the nerve to put that on my expenses, but people in business, it seems, have no problem doing so.
Apparently, the price is not entirely about airline greed. In some cases it’s a matter of Wi-Fi speed: the old bandwidth squeeze. If you get too many users tapping in at the same time, the system can’t handle it. In fact, on the most popular business routes, say New York to Los Angeles or Seattle, Gogo’s pricing may be twice what it is on a leisure flight from New York to Orlando, Fla., or Fort Lauderdale, Fla. And prices go with the flow of the demand, particularly for business travelers.
“The whole purpose of the higher price is to keep people off the system,” Michael Small, Gogo’s chief executive, told Conde Nast Traveler in May. “As we sit here with capacity scarce, we need to price high for simple supply and demand.”
It’s another case of the haves and have-nots. The road warriors aren’t scared off by higher prices, for example. They’re already paying to sit in those overpriced business-class seats, after all.
But the connectivity situation is improving on all fronts aloft (as it is at sea). Technology and new systems have been developed to increase significantly bandwidth, reliability and speed. Delta, one of the first to sign on for the new 2Ku system with Gogo, recently showed it off during a demo flight, where 40 invitees all streamed … well, whatever they stream … and the system handled all that plus “providing a great browsing experience on additional device,” according to Small.
The 2Ku system uses more efficient antennas, which means it will produce more bandwidth at less cost, Gogo points out. And because they’re small, there’s less drag, which translates into less fuel consumption and costs for the airlines.
I’m sure getting all this technology up and running is costly, but then again, if more people can use it, there’s less need to scare people away with high prices, right?
Theoretically. Gogo’s CEO says when 2Ku is in wide use, prices may become more user friendly.
But as Morgan Painter, a spokesman for Gogo, explained: “When flying in the U.S. and Canada, Gogo currently operates on an air-to-ground-based system. As aircraft travel overseas, we must deliver our service via satellite technology, which increases the cost of providing in-flight services.”
And given our addiction to connectivity, could it become the next source of fee rage?
Not in all cases. Some of the alt-legacy airlines have found other ways to provide and pay for the service.
Southwest is charging a standard $8 per flight for Wi-Fi.
JetBlue announced in November that its newly installed high-speed Wi-Fi would be available free fleet-wide. Its Fly-fi service, powered by ViaSat, is paid for by advertisers who know they’ve got a captive audience.
Virgin Atlantic also tapped ViaSat to install its streaming-speed technology on new Airbus additions to a fleet that started out with Gogo technology. It, too, is looking for new revenue possibilities — from advertisers, as well as selling Virgin Atlantic products and upgrades to passengers via Internet connections.
In addition, some carriers have partnered with online-entertainment giants to the benefit of passengers. Amazon Prime subscribers can watch movies free on JetBlue, and Netflixers can stream content gratis on Virgin.
Of course, subscribing to these services costs fliers some bucks to begin with.
One more way to bring down costs is to buy your Wi-Fi in advance. If you travel often, you can get an international subscription for Delta on the Gogo site at $69.95 a month. For less of a commitment, you can buy a Delta Global Day Pass for $28 (gogoair .com).
Given the history of fees in the airline industry — that is, what goes up never comes down — passengers may need to do a little more digging to stay up to speed on the most cost-effective way to get Wi-Fi in the sky.