Why Are Airlines Giving Free Wi-Fi When They Charge For Everything Else?

by joeheg

Airlines have been charging for things that used to be free for decades. First, they started charging to check bags. Then they began charging extra for seats with extra legroom, and eventually started to charge more for seats with ordinary legroom but were closer to the front of the plane.  It was only a matter of time before they started to charge for snacks and to bring a carry-on bag to put in the overhead bins.

However, one amenity they’ve always charged for is onboard Wi-Fi access. Maybe it’s because passengers understood there was a cost to provide internet access while flying through the sky. Another explanation was that the passengers most likely to pay for internet access were those flying for business and they could expense the cost to their employer.

One airline to buck the trend is JetBlue which has offered its Fly-Fi internet service for free to passengers.

While some airlines were early adopters in providing Wi-Fi through their fleets, almost all major airlines now offer the service to passengers (with Frontier being the most prominent exception). While prices vary depending on the internet speed and duration of the flight, in-flight Wi-Fi is marketed to the masses instead of being a niche offering.

In the beginning, almost all Wi-Fi services were provided by GoGo but now there are several players in the market including Panasonic and Viasat. I was very impressed the first time I tried the Viasat Wi-Fi on an American flight and I’ve had similar experiences since then.

While JetBlue offers free Wi-Fi, other airlines have played with the idea. For a while, Delta Air Lines partnered with T-Mobile to offer 1 hour of free Wi-Fi to passengers using their cell phones.

A while ago, an unnamed airline offered free Panasonic Wi-Fi including streaming to passengers to see their usage patterns. Once passengers found the service was free, 88% of them streamed Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, AppleMusic, TikTok and Instagram Videos.

Delta currently offers free use of messaging apps including iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp (but don’t try to look at a picture or video link as those are throttled).

Obviously, there’s demand for in-flight Wi-Fi that’s capable of streaming audio and video services. Now that providers like Viasat and Panasonic are able to provide the service, why are airlines going to offer the service for free?

There has to be something in it for airlines, as we know they’re willing to charge for everything from a pair of headphones to a face mask.

Here’s my unofficial list of why airlines would provide Wi-Fi for free:

  • If passengers can stream content from the internet to their devices, they’ll be less dependent on in-flight entertainment systems which are expensive and heavy.
  • The increased cost can be passed onto customers since people will pay more to fly on an airline with free Wi-Fi.
  • Technology improvements have reduced the cost of offering Wi-Fi to passengers.

I’m sure there are more reasons but since I don’t run an airline, I don’t know how or why airlines like Delta are rolling out free Wi-Fi to Delta SkyMiles members on select domestic flights.

But since it’s free to sign up for Delta’s SkyMiles program, there’s no reason not to create an account, even if the only reason is for the free Wi-Fi.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary


priscilla November 18, 2022 - 12:56 pm

they want to still our information and sell it to others.

Noa November 18, 2022 - 1:00 pm

Airlines also generally offer free charging, free reading light, free bathrooms, free underseat and overhead bags, free armrests, free recline, free open windows, free soda and pretzels, free app for streaming movies, and so on.

So it’s not that surprising. After a while an amenity just becomes a necessity and wifi is that.

Bob November 18, 2022 - 6:54 pm

I think you nailed the reasons.

IFE was always free.

Offering Wi-Fi is cheaper than offering IFE.


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