Why can’t some airlines figure out inflight Wi-Fi?

Dec 19, 2019

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Getting internet access while in the air was once a dream. Nowadays, it’s (mostly) a reality.

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

You’ll find relatively cheap inflight Wi-Fi access on most major U.S. airlines. Of the “big three,” American and Delta lead the way by offering the best and most reliable connections. American’s been actively upgrading its domestic fleet to ViaSat’s high-speed, satellite-based Wi-Fi, and the results are beginning to show. In fact, I’ve been impressed with internet speeds so good that I’ve had no issues uploading photos to Instagram or WordPress.

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Delta made headlines earlier this year when it tested offering free, unlimited high-speed Wi-Fi on some flights. Although the trial is now over, the carrier is committed to offering fleet-wide free Wi-Fi within the next two years.

United’s inflight Wi-Fi offering has always been the least reliable of the “big three,” but it’s definitely getting better. About 75% of my United flights this year had working internet. And on those that didn’t, at least I took good pictures.

The best part about internet access on the major U.S. airlines is that they charge for access based on time, without imposing data caps. In my experience on U.S.-based airlines, flight passes range from around $8 to $60 for the entire flight. There are even a bunch of credit cards that offer free inflight Wi-Fi.

While I’m excited for the day that airlines offer free internet access, the truth is that it’s definitely a few years away.

If an airline charges for Wi-Fi, then there’s only one passenger-friendly pricing model — one based on time without data caps.

RELATED: Save money on inflight Wi-Fi with these tips

As more and more international airlines install inflight Wi-Fi, I’ve unfortunately seen a proliferation of usage-based internet pricing. For example, I recently flew the world’s longest flight from Newark to Singapore (review coming soon). While Singapore offered Wi-Fi, it charged based on usage. The most expensive package offered was 200 MB for $15.99.

I bought the package and it took me just 15 minutes of refreshing my emails and Slacks to blow through the 200 MB. Had I wanted to stay connected for the entire 18 hours, I’d have been faced with a bill of over $1,100!

Singapore isn’t the only global airline to offer usage-based Wi-Fi pricing. Several of the world’s top carriers do too, including ANA (on some flights), Etihad and Swiss.

On my recent flight in Swiss first class, the largest Wi-Fi package was 220 MB for $60. Swiss offered “free” Wi-Fi to first-class passengers. However, the voucher I received was only valid for 50 MB of Wi-Fi, which I used to download my notifications and send a few texts. After that, I needed to pay (an arm and a leg) for Wi-Fi access.

Swiss first-class Wi-Fi voucher. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

In addition to transitioning to a time-based pricing model, airlines should give unlimited internet access to premium cabin passengers. When tickets sell for thousands of dollars, there’s no worse feeling than being nickled-and-dimed for internet access. The marginal revenue that airlines get from premium-cabin Wi-Fi purchases just doesn’t outweigh the feeling of being pinched for every last penny.

In my opinion, all airlines should follow Emirates’s lead. On that airline, first- and business-class passengers get unlimited, unrestricted internet access, as long as they’re members of the Emirates Skywards program.

Don’t even get me started about global airlines that don’t even have inflight Wi-Fi. As far as I’m concerned, Qantas deserves the award for the worst inflight Wi-Fi offering. Many of Qantas’ international flights are ultra-long haul, yet Qantas doesn’t offer an internet connection on any of its long-haul aircraft.

Bottom line

The U.S. airlines have done a great job at offering relatively cheap and reliable inflight Wi-Fi. Some international airlines have followed their lead, but other global carriers should reevaluate their inflight connectivity strategy. As technology and bandwidth continues to improve — especially on international routes — there’s no longer an excuse for airlines to charge for internet based on data usage. Furthermore, premium-cabin tickets should include free Wi-Fi. It costs thousands of dollars (or miles) to fly up front, so why not bundle internet as well?

Airlines have clearly gotten away with extracting as much revenue as they can from inflight Wi-Fi. But now that we’re entering 2020, it’s time for usable and cheap inflight internet to become a reality on all global airlines. 

Featured photo courtesy of American Airlines.

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