We Now Know How – And When – Delta Will Start Offering Free Inflight Wifi

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.

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.

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. I think this is great but I’m still surprised as this is the thing expense in the world for business travelers to expense. “Inflight internet so I could remain responsive and productive.” What manager would turn that expense down?

  2. @Andrew
    I have always avoided work on the plane because they wouldn’t pay for internet connection. This isn’t exactly good new for me.

  3. I have thought all along that free wifi by DL and AA would be coming IF your an AAdvantage of SkyLira member. I am would suspect that if it goes free for all, a commercial presentation will pop up for you to watch before you can do anything. Someone has to fit the bill.

  4. Interesting. If it’s so hard, how has JetBlue already managed to do it? They’ve been offering free Wi-Fi on all their planes for quite a while now too; it’s not like it just started yesterday or last year. Their network hasn’t collapsed due to bandwidth issues. Wonder what the holdup here is for the legacy carriers if B6 can do it and they’re not even as big as WN.

  5. I’m not convinced people writing these pieces have ever actually had to use wifi on these airlines. Delta’s still charging $30 for a domestic mainline flight on their non Viasat aircraft, just like AA, and when compared to United’s $8 flat rate guaranteed price, I’ll take the guarantee of $8 wifi, even if potentially slow, over the potential of getting stuck paying $30+ for equally slow wifi any day. Every article about how bad United’s wifi is I assume has to be written by someone expensing their wifi. I’d never pay AA or Delta’s non Viasat prices. United and Alaska’s flat rate is already vastly superior to what the other two have now. Of course when Delta joins JetBlue in making wifi free, that’ll be another story, but it sounds like even that will only be on their Viasat jets. As long as they have old wifi planes still in service, it’s still an uncomfortable gamble. At least Delta is pretty good at retrofitting planes to a consistent standard.

  6. The only reason why they’re going to go with free wifi is so they can entirely offload the cost of IFE. That’s certainly AA’s mindset.

    1. Provide passengers with free wifi (and get them to become loyalty members)
    2. Have passengers stream their own streaming subscriptions
    3. Stop paying for content from media companies, and cut out / reduce media licensing costs.

  7. @M,

    I fly Delta almost weekly, and never have I seen their WiFi at $30+. It’s always $5 for each flight.

  8. Was on a SEA to BOS for B6 with free Wifi the service was good and did not detect any problems with it. Also did not really see anyone using it on the the red eye flight.

    On a flight over the Pond I do not want to download any entertainment for 6 -8 hours.

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