Most Airlines Still Charge (A Lot) For In-Flight Wi-Fi
TravelPulse file photo
Great strides have been made in improving the technology needed to offer in-flight internet access. At first glance, the increase of availability and speed of airborne Wi-Fi seems like a win for fliers: they will not be limited to the airline’s often-meager in-flight entertainment offerings. Most major U.S. carriers offer wireless access, but that doesn’t mean you can just board and start streaming Netflix until you land.
It’s not a perk, it’s a new revenue stream for airlines
The problem — for travelers — is that airlines do not yet see in-flight Wi-Fi as a perk that is necessary to lure fliers. For the most part, they see it as an add-on that they can use to boost revenue. Pricing schemes vary depending on the airline, the connection speed and even the kind of device that you want to connect.
Carriers don’t pocket all the money from Wi-Fi fees, which can be as high a $40 on a long flight. They take a cut of the revenue, but most of the charges end up in the pockets of in-flight internet providers like Gogo. Even airlines that use the same internet provider can have wildly different connection fees.
Free, but only if you use certain streaming services
JetBlue currently offers free “basic” internet access on its planes. Dubbed Fly-Fi, the service is optimized for Amazon Prime members (non-members can sign up for a 30-day free trial). Though they are not blocked by the airline, the performance of other streaming services is not "guaranteed." Premium Wi-Fi (Fly-Fi Plus), needed for bandwidth intensive activities such as movie downloads, costs $9 per hour.
Southwest, meanwhile, charges $8 per day, though bandwidth is limited for most major streaming sites. Movies are available for an extra fee (usually $5 per flick). The low-cost carrier does have free live TV streaming with 19 channels.
Legacy carriers charging by the hour
Though they have different pricing models, both these low-cost carriers seem to be intent on tying internet connection to a specific live TV or streaming service. This could help keep connection charges down for fliers, but it could be a headache for people who don’t want to use that particular service.
Legacy carriers actually give fliers a bit more flexibility when it comes to internet connections. American, United and Delta all have hourly rate options. According to the Daily Mail, United has, by far, the cheapest rates for this kind of service at $1.99-$3.99 per hour. Delta, meanwhile, is the most expensive option, charging as much as $39.99 per flight for Wi-Fi accessed via a tablet or laptop.
Where is Wi-Fi actually free?
Norwegian Air Shuttle has free internet access for fliers on routes within Europe and between Europe and the Caribbean. This has become a major selling point for the Oslo-based carrier, which is currently one of only a few carriers that provide free Wi-Fi in flight. Yes, Emirates does offer a complimentary connection, but once you use more than 10mb of data, you will be asked to pay. This will allow for a quick check of Facebook and some emails, but no streaming.
And now the good news: more airports are offering free internet access. Some, like Boston Logan, have even increased speeds recently. San Francisco, Orlando and Dallas all have free connections, but other major hubs in Chicago, New York, LA and Atlanta still make you pay.
These are early days for in-flight Wi-Fi services. Pricing may decrease as more in the industry adopt the option. However, it is already clear that airlines do not see this as a perk to lure fliers, but as an additional revenue stream. Free services will most likely continue to be tied to a certain streaming provider.
For more Airlines & Airports News
More by Josh Lew
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Recent Travel Opinions
Airlines & Airports
Features & Advice
Destination & Tourism