Delta CEO Ed Bastian Pushing for Free Inflight Wi-Fi

Sep 28, 2018

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Speaking this week from the Skift Forum in New York City, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian reiterated that he’d love to make onboard Wi-Fi free. This isn’t the first time he’s publicly made such a wish, but one has to wonder if it’s truly feasible in the near-term.

Currently, the only domestic airline offering free inflight Wi-Fi is JetBlue.

Those who have been flying long enough to remember the earliest days of inflight Wi-Fi have plenty of battle scars. You know, the pixie dust sprinkling on tray tables with arms and fingers crossed, just hoping that the connection hangs on long enough to get that very, very important email out of one’s Outbox and into the wilds of the internet. Those same passengers are apt to also recall the gradual northward climb of Gogo’s prices — as service deteriorated. As more and more people signed on, the available bandwidth for each person dwindled, further limiting the experience.

Satellite-based Wi-Fi solved many of those initial pains, with Gogo’s 2ku service providing a massive (and much needed) upgrade. The difference in speed, reliability and overall connection quality is stark: If you happen to board a Delta Connection jet with the older air-to-ground equipment after flying on a mainline jet with Gogo 2ku service, you’ll feel as if you’ve been downgraded from fiber to dial-up.

Now boarding... faster, free WiFi? (Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines)
Now boarding… faster, free WiFi? (Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Still, having hundreds of passengers latch on to even the fastest commercial Wi-Fi solution would likely lead to tears. There just isn’t enough bandwidth to go around, and when you consider that some single-flight Gogo passes cost as much as an entire month of at-home internet, you wind up with inflated user expectations that can’t be met.

That said, Bastian also claimed in his appearance that speeds should improve soon, hopefully putting an end to “SlowGo” as he puts it. You may recall that Airbus, Delta, OneWeb, Sprint and Bharti Airtel formed the Seamless Air Alliance in early 2018, enabling member mobile operators to “extend their services into airline cabins.” Considering just how fast 5G tests have been, it’s conceivable that bandwidth issues in-air could be nixed if next-generation wireless technology can be properly ported to the sky.

Only time will tell if Bastian’s wish will come true, but one has to also wonder why he’d choose to make Wi-Fi – of all things – free. Remember: we’re just days out from Delta joining practically every other major airline in bumping checked bag fees once again. Of all the fees that could be dropped, from bags to seat selection to onboard alcohol, why Wi-Fi?

ed bastian
Delta CEO Ed Bastian (Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

My best assumption here is that it’d be the most on-brand for Delta. The airline made waves when it announced that all entertainment (and now, education) across all flights, in all cabins, would be provided gratis. Delta Studio is perhaps the most comprehensive, seamless inflight entertainment solution flying today, and it’s free for Basic Economy passengers just as it is for full-fare Delta One passengers. In doing so, Delta positioned itself as a go-to airline for families seeking distractions for their kids traveling from one point to another, and there’s no doubt that reducing onboard fees lessens the collective blood pressure of travelers.

Correction: This article has been updated to include information about JetBlue’s free inflight Wi-Fi program, Fly-Fi.

Featured image by the author.

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