The Airplane Wi-Fi Rip Off

by Robert MGarvey

Inflight wi-fi does not work. Don’t believe me. Believe Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta, who in a stunning September interview at the Economic Club of Washington derisively referred to GoGo as “No Go” and elaborated that when usage of inflight wi-fi goes above 10% of the passengers, the “performance starts to erode.”

The interview snippet is here, under two minutes and a must listen if you are a regular inflight wi-fi user.

Bastian added that the system inadequacy is why the carrier charges for wi-fi (which he indicated should be free: “I’m a firm believer that we need to make Wi-Fi free across all of our service and we are working towards that,” he said). If it were free now, however, everybody would use it and it would crash, said Bastian.

This is the bit I love. Therefore, carrier logic is charge for it, fewer of us will use it, and, yeah, the performance is middling, but at least it doesn’t crash.

Got that?

By that logic carriers should charge for the poor coffee they serve – maybe it would be a little better if fewer of us ordered it? Nah. That makes no sense.

But neither really does this argument that constraining usage with a fee for a poor wi-fi product results in a somewhat better product.

And it may not even be secure. In 2016 a USA Today reporter wrote about an inflight wi-fi hack he experienced. In 2017, SmarterTravel published a piece hedlined, Why You Should Never Use Inflight Wi-Fi. The core argument is that all public wi-fi systems have vulnerabilities (hotels and airports definitely included) and wily hackers will figure out ways to penetrate inflight systems.

Bad performance, possible insecurities do not add up to an enticing offering.

We all agree on this. The 2019 J.D. Power airline survey concurs. “The one area where both traditional and low-cost carriers can still improve, however, is in in-flight services. It continues to be the lowest-ranked factor in the study, as many airlines still struggle with in-flight entertainment, connectivity, in-seat power and food service,” said Michael Taylor, Travel Intelligence Lead at J.D. Power.

Mind you, Delta nickels and dimes us for No Go. Rates start at $16, special pre-flight pricing, for 24 hours of service in North America. Global access is $28.

Most carriers charge about the same. Here’s a round-up of pricing on many carriers.

And yet the service is seriously flawed.

Even though it has been around for a generation.

Inflight wi-fi dates to 2000 – that means the 20th anniversary is next year and it still sucks.

In recent months I have been flying more than I had been, mainly short trips (the longest has been Phoenix to Chicago, round trip), and I have not used the inflight w-fi once. Before boarding I make sure I have downloaded several Kindle books and so I turn the plane into a mobile reading room. It’s more enlightening than doing email, which had been my inflight ritual, but it also has proven less exasperating than wrestling with inflight wi-fi inadequacies.

Experts tell us that airlines are making steady improvements in inflight wi-fi, that on some carriers it’s not as awful as we say. Probably that’s true, just as we have seen steady improvements in cellular coverage and signal quality over the past 20 years, there may have been real improvements on a few carriers.

But I am simply not broadly optimistic about inflight wi-fi. Not near-term. Carriers, supposedly, will invest north of $100 billion in inflight wi-fi upgrades by 2035 and this has many giddy with the possibilities – but that is 16 years from now and I do not see making predictions about technology that distant to be a smart move. Maybe it will be much better in 2035, more likely it will be entirely different, but what good will that do me on my next flight this month?

Absolutely no good at all.

But I thank Mr Bastian for telling me I am right that inflight wi-fi indeed sucks. And when next I am asked why I don’t use it anymore, I’ll simply send a link to his comments, QED.

1 thought on “The Airplane Wi-Fi Rip Off”

  1. Mr. Bastian’s comments reflect what I believe has been a longstanding flaw in virtually all airline executives running major airlines since deregulation in 1978. They run their airlines as if they are selling a product rather than selling a service. Either they do not understand how to provide good service or just believe that the far majority of the flying public are morons. Perhaps that is the real reason airlines find it so hard to consistently turn a profit. It is also why even though I live in Ft. Lauderdale, I will never, ever fly Spirit. The hassle is not worth the savings.

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