In March 2019 Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the airline would offer free wifi within “a year or two.” They needed to ensure they had enough bandwidth for everyone to use it, since not charging would mean far greater usage.
Delta tested just how much people used wifi when it’s free and found that their inflight internet couldn’t handle it without degrading service. They’ve since worked to improve speeds. Over the summer an internal memo leaked describing a plan to roll out free internet.
- A free internet test on some flights through end of year
- Then launch free wifi on domestic mainline routes (but not regional jets, which feature slower wifi)
- Roll out free wifi to international by end of 2024
Delta’s plan has taken further shape. Aviation insider JonNYC reports as “unconfirmed” – however it’s consistent with what I’ve heard as well – that domestic ViaSat-equipped aircraft (the ones that have enough bandwidth to support this) will get free internet early next year.
RUMOR: DL to launch free wifi on domestic Viasat equipped airplanes for all skymiles members starting in 2023. 100% unconfirmed.
— 🇺🇦 JonNYC 🇺🇦 (@xJonNYC) September 28, 2022
Since implementation remains months away, technical issues with ViaSat still have the potential to derail this plan.
United Airlines offers a small discount on internet to MileagePlus members. Delta will use free internet as a joining incentive – if you want it free you’ll need to be a SkyMiles member. SkyMiles uptake is a form of funding, since it enhances the value of the program against which Delta has borrowed $9 billion.
This spring American Airlines tested free wifi on certain routes, measuring usage and advertiser-supported monetization opportunities. When it looked like Delta was going to announce free wifi in 2019 American had the press releases written to match, ready to pull the trigger whatever Delta did.
American’s Northeast Alliance partner JetBlue already provides free high speed wifi, and American’s current pricing (up to $30 per flight) is unsustainable when other airlines charge $5 – $15.
To date American has only been willing to do partnerships that entail revenue like whitelisting TikTok and also Facebook Messenger as temporary promotions, despite publicly announcing free on board messaging to match the competition at Media and Investor Day in 2017 before quietly reneging.
United for its part is in no position to match Delta on this. During the United Airlines earnings call in July 2019 Scott Kirby declared wifi would be free on his airline. He just had to get enough bandwidth on board in order to do it. The carrier’s new domestic aircraft, and retrofit older narrrowbodies are supposed to offer wifi that is fast enough. But they haven’t been retrofitting planes. And for now though United’s wifi is far less functional than American’s or Delta’s. It’s barely usable much of the time even under the current paid model which gets less use than a $0 price point will entail.
I argued in 2012 that inflight wifi would be free within 10 years. There first needed to be enough bandwidth so that one passenger’s use of the service didn’t trade off with another passenger’s use. Inflight internet was always going to be free. Even Southwest Airlines has been rapidly improving its wifi speeds and will be deploying high speed internet which should put them in a position to compete with free.