Inflight Internet: It Isn’t Too Expensive for What You Get, It’s Too Cheap

The Marvel — and Tradeoff — of Inflight Internet

Inflight internet is one of the truly amazing advances that’s made a direct difference in life over the past few years.

Some people hate it, it makes them feel obligated to stay connected whereas flying was one of the few times where they could turn off their life. They couldn’t be reached. It was an opportunity to read a book, or even to nap during the business day. Cherished personal time.

In some ways inflight internet is one example of the trend towards eliminating the distinctions between work and personal time, although much (though certainly not all!) business travel is done during the work week.

For me, it’s not only made me more productive it’s generally reduced my overall stress level. I used to hate landing after a long flight during the business day to an avalanche of urgent emails requiring immediate attention. Even if none were truly urgent, having 30 or 50 messages that need at least cursory scanning, many needing at least a perfunctory reply, ate up time and caused immediate anxiety. After all, I’d have to go through all of them to know whether any crises happened.

As Internet in the Sky Has Proliferated, It’s Become Increasing Frustrating

I avoid flying most planes without internet. It’s more prevalent inside the US than outside, but foreign carrier uptake is increasing and even for international and overwater flying. Singapore Airlines generally has it and so do Emirates and Etihad. So does Lufthansa. I’ll make an exception for first class award tickets on Cathay Pacific, but I’ll try to schedule those 14 hour flights without internet over a weekend to minimize the hit to productivity and the consequence of having my inbox deluged.

Customers do choose carriers with internet over those without it, even if fewer than 10% of passengers are buying it on a given flight (some routes it’s much much higher, like Virgin America San Francisco – Boston or San Francisco – Austin).

At the Phoenix International Aviation Symposium three years ago, both Doug Parker and Scott Kirby spoke. This was right after US Airways announced the installation of inflight internet for their fleet. They didn’t do it because they were going to make money on the internet. Rather, they saw customers booking away from their flights due to the lack of internet. It was about losing ticket sales, rather than generating incremental ancillary revenue.

The problem: the technology to deliver internet to aircraft is complicated and cumbersome. As internet use has grown across airlines, and uptake has grown (though is still relatively small), and as bandwidth requirements per user have grown, the inflight internet experience has become a frustrating one… not least of which for passengers on flights using last generation technology.

Complaints about inflight internet were one of the absurdities pointed out in Louis C.K.’s bit, Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy. And yet the more people use it, the more frustrating is, the less people want to pay for it.

We Need Higher Priced Inflight Internet

Gogo has increased prices. There’s only so much capital they can burn through, so much technological investment they can make that their customers don’t pay for. A decade ago Boeing shut down its own Connexion service after 9 figures of bleeding.

It seems like we need either greater bandwidth or lower prices. And yet lower prices lead to more frustrating experiences.

I was just on an Emirates flight, and Emirates sells internet ‘first 10 megs free’ then $1 for 500 megabytes.

At those prices everyone uses it. And that means performance is so much the worse. I found myself wishing that internet was more expensive on the flight, given that there was no chance bandwidth would be increased on that particular plane on that particular night.

At $30 for a 15 hour flight it would still have been a bargain, fewer people would have chosen to use it, and the fixed available bandwidth would have spread out across fewer passengers.

Of course bandwidth needs to grow, and once it does usage rates can go up rather than pricing. In fact once there’s enough bandwidth so that consumers aren’t trading off with each other for usage, I’d expect it would eventually become free (or rather ‘bundled’ with ticket prices) as it’s becoming at hotels.

For now though, free or near-free isn’t a good thing — and certainly isn’t for those who value it enough to pay more.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Agree 100%.

    I used to pay for WiFi on a long-distance rail service in the UK, and it was great.

    As a customer ‘enhancement’, they made the WiFi free for all. It became unusual.

  2. United is using a different system than gogo. Most 2-4 hour flights are in the 6.99-7.99 per flight range. It isn’t that great and spotty at best. Two weeks ago, it cut out about 400 miles away from Houston flying from Chicago. Last week on the way to Houston, I couldn’t connect to the access point for an hour and then finally once connected, it wasn’t available due to “technical issues”.

    United has put it’s inflight entertainment on the wifi, so I am guessing those routers get a decent workout and if there are too many devices per router you end up with congestion.

  3. I’d gladly pay more for Wifi if it worked!

    Of the past 10 United flights I’ve been on that have advertised Wifi, only 6(ish) have actually worked, and the ones where it hasn’t worked still say that Wifi is available on the flight status. I had a 16 hour EWR-HKG four weeks ago which I had planned to do work on… nope. I flew DEN-BOS two weeks ago — half-way through the flight the right-side electrical outlets stopped working, the Wifi started resetting every 30 minutes, and it forgot any paid accounts so you had to repurchase each time. Last week I flew PBI-EWR and the network was visible but nobody could connect.

    The flight attendants can’t do anything about it when these things go wrong, and I don’t blame them for that. What idiot is designing these systems, though? 8(?) years ago I flew on a flight with Conexxion by Boeing and it worked perfectly SFO-NRT with fast speeds and not a single hiccup.

  4. Rather elitist. Essentially those with the biggest expense accounts or disposable income get the bandwidth under your premise. Why is a businessperson’s email traffic more important than Joe Public’s Facebook posting?

    The unwashed masses are more and more able to get free internet at airports and other public meeting places. While the airplane access should not be anywhere close to free due to the capital requirements to install and maintain and the need for a stock company to have a decent ROI, pricing it for the elite runs counter to global macroeconomic trend.

  5. @ThickHead – why is it elitist to have people pay for the value of a product? Inflight internet is expensive to produce and it has limitations – supply and demand. If you make it free, then no one really gets to use it because it is overwhelmed.

  6. $35 for Gogo on Virgin from Boston to LA is just too much money, no matter how fast it is. I used to think I couldn’t live without it. But they managed to kick my habit. I’ll never go back.

  7. On a recent United domestic flight without Internet, when we landed, the FA announced “I hope you had a productive flight”. Bad choice of words in this day and age. 🙂

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