United Airlines Planning to Offer Free WiFi

During United’s second quarter earnings call airline President Scott Kirby reported that recent investments in new hardware and software for the airlines inflight internet has improved customer satisfaction with the service by 20%, and they’re processing fewer refund requests.

I’ve found United’s inflight internet to be so unreliable that I actively avoid flying the airline, preferring Delta or American whose internet is both faster and works more consistently.

Kirby reports that improvements to their internet product are intended “to get the system to a high enough level of reliability and bandwidth that we can make WiFi free for our customers.”

Already JetBlue offers free internet, others have added it on a more limited basis too, and Southwest, Delta, and Alaska have introduced free inflight messaging. Delta has been trialing free inflight internet.

There’s a rumor that American is considering offering free internet which matches what I wrote about their internal model which is that they prefer to charge customers for internet but if other airlines offer it free they might be forced to do so as well.

In 2012 I wrote that once bandwidth increases substantially for inflight internet, it would eventually become free (included in ticket price). I predicted that would happen within 10 years. People thought I was nuts, but it makes perfect economic sense so seemed inevitable once bandwidth limitations were overcome.

Free internet underscores that the economics of bundling are when a the marginal cost of providing a product to an additional customer is near-zero, it makes more sense to charge for it as a package rather than separately. That’s how cable companies maximize revenue. The mantra of ‘unbundling’ which has been accepted as gospel in the airline industry for the past decade doesn’t always make sense.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. As Americans learn to cope with less and less personal space, they become happier and happier in high-density seating. Just like their Oriental counterparts before them, they can be satisfied with very little, just so long as it is theirs. When you watch onboard videos on TV-like screens, you are sharing the experience with several others on the plane. This fails to satisfy the “I am very, very, very special” needs they have. So, with a hundred passengers each using their own ‘internet terminal’, they can all watch different things or perform different tasks. Now you have made each one special. And they are happy. Maybe you don’t even have to feed them. They’re still happy. They feel so special they don’t have to share anything with anyone.

  2. UA is a pathetic run organization that will go no where as long as DeNada Munoz and Scotch Kirby are sinking ERRR running the ship.

  3. Free internet that doesn’t work is better tlhan paid internet that doesn’t work and results in fewer pissed off customers. Brilliant move!

  4. @ Edward Burggraf, you did not just use the word “Oriental” to describe asians correct???? Seriously

  5. Scott: what is wrong with describing people from the Orient as Orientals?

    Edward: I imagine it is more that we can go back to routine. Rather than using the crappy touchscreens with crappy buttons that don’t work how you want; to look through a crappy list of movies and shows using a crappy ui; I can use my device, which I already know how to use, which is customized to me, to look up whatever the heck I would lookup normally when board for a few hours.

    Changes your 12 hour flight from sitting in a doctor’s waiting room for 12 hours with nothing but their decade old magazines and crappy soap opera channel (for the secretary) into sitting in that same room, but you have your smartphone.

  6. @a-b. So should we start calling Westerners “Occidentals”.?
    @edward burggraf. “Orientals” became a perjorative term in the U.S., as in “Let’s exclude Orientals (you people) from owning property in California.”

  7. This is actually a brilliant business move. Until now, they had to manually refund all those purchases since the wifi never worked for the entire flight. Now since it’s free, no more refunds and people have zero expectations.

  8. United can’t even make paid wifi work… so my hopes aren’t very high. United consistently has the WORST wifi of the Big 3. At least it’s easy to request a refund, because you’ll have to.

  9. I will probably be kicked out of this form for stating this: I. Actually. LIKE. United. There it is, in black and white. And I don’t feel any remorse for saying it! With over 4 million miles between my wife, my two kids and me, I have no issues scheduling either of us on a United flight. They have their issues, of course, but which airline does not? I find their customer service better than many European and Asian airlines, their schedule convenient, and their 777-300 as comfortable as or better than the business class of any airline.

    I don’t like their domestic WiFi. Their international 777-300 and 787, however, offer fast and reliable. It actually support making calls through WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. But don’t tell anybody.

    I expect that their free WiFi will follow El Al’s model: the free package is limited to texting, WhatsApp, and e-mails. All without videos and only few photos. You want anything beyond? Pay for it! But then again… Is any video so important that it cannot wait a few hours until you land?

    I know I am old (61). Years ago my daughter called me, distraught about the fact that there was no WiFi on her bus. I explained to her that “when I was your age, we had WiFi on all the buses and planes. Unfortunately we were unable to use it because the computer and the smart phone had not been invented yet”. She actually believed it.

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