Free Wi-Fi in Business and First Class – the Weekly Wish

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Today TPG Contributor Nick Ewen continues his series The Weekly Wish, looking at flaws, shortcomings, and room for improvement in the world of travel and loyalty programs.

There’s no doubt that we live in a connected world. With smartphones, tablets, laptops, and all the other ways we communicate, access, and share information, it’s oftentimes hard to go even five minutes without an active Internet connection. For a while, we had to endure this very thing on flights, though more and more airlines are now adding Wi-Fi to their planes. Unfortunately, internet access at 35,000 feet doesn’t come cheap. However, I envision a world where premium travelers no longer have to suffer the agony and humiliation of being offline. Today’s Weekly Wish: long-haul international flights should offer free Wi-Fi for first and business class passengers.

GoGo offers ground coverage for many airlines in North America.

For starters, let’s talk a little bit about the technical details of offering WiFi on an aircraft. There are essentially two ways a plane can connect to Wi-Fi: using ground stations (much like our cell phones do), or using satellite technology (obviously required for overseas flying). Installing this feature on existing planes can set airlines back at least $100,000 per aircraft. Those of you who travel domestically often have likely used GoGo at least once; their network is powered by ground stations. Participating airlines are Air Canada, AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, United, US Airways, and Virgin America. Depending on the number of users and the specific location, the speed and reliability of the connection can leave something to be desired.

GoGo’s ground-based installations won’t do you any good if traveling overseas, and many airlines are recognizing the importance of keeping long-haul international passengers connected while in the air. TPG gave an overview of Wi-Fi coverage on both U.S. and foreign airlines last year, but here’s a quick rundown of notable current offerings:

American's new 777-300ER planes offer international Wi-Fi.
American’s new 777-300ER planes offer international Wi-Fi.

American: Last year, TPG had a chance to fly from JFK-GRU in first class on American’s brand new Boeing 777-300ER, the airline’s first international plane to be equipped with Wi-Fi. Though it was free at the time, it now would set travelers back $12 for two hours, $17 for four hours, or $19 for the duration of the flight.

Delta is in the process of rolling out Wi-Fi on their entire long-haul fleet.
Delta is in the process of rolling out Wi-Fi on its entire long-haul fleet.

Delta: Back in June 2012, Delta announced plans to equip their entire long-haul fleet with satellite-based Wi-Fi coverage, though this didn’t actually become a reality until earlier this year. Introductory pricing is available for $14/hour ($8/hour for mobile devices) or $24.95/flight ($14.95/flight for mobile devices). The target completion date for fleet-wide Wi-Fi is 2015, though it will be interesting to see if they can reach that goal.

United manages their own Wi-Fi network on the majority of their planes, with many international aircraft already equipped with connectivity.
United manages their own Wi-Fi network on the majority of their planes, with many international aircraft already equipped with connectivity.

United: United actually differs from the other legacy carriers in that they manage their own Wi-Fi network (aside from their 757 p.s. service from JFK to LAX/SFO, which is managed by GoGo). This coverage is delivered via satellite, so it includes many of their long-haul aircraft. As I write this, almost all of their 747-400 planes have the technology installed, with plans to equip their 767/777 by July, 2015 and their 787 fleet at a later date. Pricing varies by the distance of the flight and is charged on a segment-by-segment basis (aside from DIRECTV-equipped planes, which charge a fixed hourly rate). For more information, visit this page.

Aer Lingus is the only carrier to offer free Wi-Fi to business class passengers, a model I wish others would follow!
Aer Lingus is the only carrier to offer free Wi-Fi to business class passengers, a model I wish others would follow!

Aer Lingus: The Ireland-based carrier has actually fulfilled my wish in advance! All of their transatlatic A330 flights are equipped with Wi-Fi, and business class passengers can surf for free (one-hour of access usually costs €10.95/$14.95, and 24-hour passes are available for €19.95/$24.95).

British Airways: Despite their global reach, British Airways is VERY limited with their Internet access; the only international WiFi offering is on their all business class flight from London City to JFK. Even that is only provided for mobile phones, and passengers need to have international roaming enabled and be prepared to pay data charges directly through their mobile provider.

Emirates: The Dubai-based airline is full of bling, but in-flight WiFi is only available on most A380 flights and select Boeing 777 flights. Prices start at $2.75 for smartphones and $7.50 for laptops. TPG experienced first class on Emirates’ A380 back in November of 2013, but sadly the Internet wasn’t working, so he had no first-hand experience to report!

Lufthansa's FlyNet is widely available on their international long-haul fleet.
Lufthansa’s FlyNet is widely available on their international long-haul fleet.

Lufthansa: In addition to being ahead of the game in soccer, the Germans also lead in international WiFi connectivity. Lufthansa’s FlyNet platform offers internet access on over 90% of its long-haul fleet (and is currently being added to the airline’s A380s). This service costs €10.95/hour or €19.95 for a 24-hour pass that can be used on any FlyNet-equipped aircraft.

As indicated by these examples, airlines are all over the Wi-Fi map, though just about every carrier has at least announced plans to equip its planes with some form of connectivity. However, with the high cost of installation, limited international offerings, and (relatively) high prices, why would an airline want to offer first and business class passengers free Wi-Fi? Well, it comes down to one key economic term: marginal revenue.

In an ideal world, airlines could adjust prices on each and every route to ensure that their planes left with every seat occupied and that the total revenue for each flight would make it profitable. However, price is just one aspect of an airline’s offerings. Travelers consider many other things when booking flights, such as convenience of times/connections, frequent flyer benefits, and on-board service offerings. Any extra incentive an airline provides could be enough to sway travelers toward them and away from the competition, and in today’s connected world, I strongly believe that free Wi-Fi is such an incentive. A single additional revenue passenger per flight would more than cover the small cost of providing free access for all premium travelers. For long-haul passengers, knowing they won’t be out of touch for 6+ hours is powerful peace of mind. They may not want or need access for the entire flight, but it would sure be nice to have the option!

Implementation would be straightforward. On each flight, the airline (or Wi-Fi provider) could generate a promotional code that would only be good for the duration of the flight, and would be limited to the number of first- and business-class passengers on the plane. There could even be an added layer of security where a traveler would need to input his/her first and last names to “verify” that he/she truly is a premium passenger. That would prevent a coach passenger from guessing the code and using up one of the free logins.

JetBlue's new Wi-Fi platform uses higher frequency Ka-band technology.
JetBlue’s new Wi-Fi platform uses higher frequency Ka-band technology.

Until Wi-Fi becomes a standard feature on long-haul flights, we likely won’t see this wish come true. Why would Lufthansa offer something for free when they already stand out for simply HAVING the technology on almost their entire long-haul fleet? However, it may come to fruition sooner than you may think. As I mentioned before, there are two ways that airplanes access the Internet: ground stations and satellites. Until recently, satellite coverage was slow and quite expensive, because it was accessed using lower frequency L-band technology. That’s gradually changing, as more companies have begun using Ku-band technology to provide greater bandwidth and faster speeds (Lufthansa, for example). Even more promising is Ka-band technology, which could represent an exponential growth in bandwidth at a fraction of the cost. Though this technology is still very new, JetBlue has begun rolling it out on their Airbus planes, and plans to add it to their entire fleet over the next couple of years.

At the end of the day, free internet is a relatively insignificant aspect of international travel. Bring able to access the Internet at all from a metal tube flying at hundreds of miles per hour several miles above the Earth’s surface is an incredible feat of technology. However, as a GoGo monthly pass holder on Delta, I would welcome any improvement that would help improve bandwidth and lower prices.

Would free Wi-Fi be enough to sway you toward one airline over another? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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