Journalists use their computers to test high-speed inflight Internet service on a flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Lucas Jackson Reuters
It wasn't so long ago (2000 or 2006, depending on how you measure) that being able to access the Internet on a plane was an idea in time.
When the technology became generally available and airlines began to equip aircraft with Wi-Fi service, passengers soon found that they could not bear to fly without it. Inmarsat's latest Inflight Connectivity Survey found that more than half (55%) of all airline passengers considered Wi-Fi to be an important means. And almost as many (53%) said they would be willing to refrain from alcoholic beverages, tea, coffee and other airplane facilities instead of Wi-Fi access.
When Delta Air Lines takes its first steps toward offering free Wi-Fi with a two-week pilot that began May 1
Stay connected in the sky
While free messages are available on Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines and on a number of international airlines, most domestic airlines charge to access the internet for email, streaming and other purposes. And the cost of accessing Wi-Fi varies – sometimes to a great extent.
Southwest Airlines pays $ 8 per day for the Wi-Fi service, which prohibits access to Netflix and other high bandwidth applications. Gogo, which provides inflight Wi-Fi to airlines such as United, Delta, Alaska and Air Canada, sells a number of buy-before-you flights pass. Book ahead and you pay $ 7 for one hour of Wi-Fi on domestic flights and $ 19 for 24 hour Wi-Fi on domestic flights.
Wait until you're in the air to buy Wi-Fi access, though, and at most airlines the cost will be much higher.
How much higher? "The prices will vary," all the more airlines will tell you. It is rare, if ever, that buying an hour or a full day of Wi-Fi access is cheaper when you are in the air.
But the tide on paid inflight Wi-Fi can turn.
In 2016, JetBlue became the first domestic airline to offer its Wi-Fi Fly-Fi streaming quality service on all its aircraft.
Delta's free Wi-Fi test means that the service is available in around 55 domestic short, mid and long distance segments per day.
"Customers are accustomed to having access to free Wi-Fi during almost every other aspect of the journey, and Delta believes it should be free when flying as well," said Ekrem Dimbiloglu, Delta's board product director, in a statement. "Testing will be the key to getting this very complex program right – this requires much more creativity, investment and planning to bring to life than a simple flip of a switch."
The test flight segments change daily; passengers learn if they are on a free Wi-Fi flight from a pre-flight email or via a push alert from the Fly Delta app. Gate agents and flight fees also make announcements.
Only free "basic" Wi-Fi is offered as part of the test, so passengers needing a more robust streaming service must purchase the paid service. Currently, it costs $ 16 for a North America Wi-Fi day pass on Delta, if purchased before the flight.
Is there free Wi-Fi on site here?
"It is nice to see an airline a desired recreation on a free basis," said tourism analyst and Atmosphere Research Group founder Henry Harteveldt. "But I am unsure whether Delta will be able to increase its market share, customer preference or revenue premium enough to guarantee offering free Wi-Fi."
Other industry experts expect Delta to continue down the full-time free Wi-Fi WiFi path and other airlines have no choice but to follow.
"Delta tends to go first with such customer-friendly initiatives," said Seth Kaplan, an aviation journalist and author of the book "Glory lost and Found: How to Delta climbed from despair to domination in Post-9/11." Kaplan said that American Airlines and United Airlines sometimes match Delta instead of losing customers, even though they are reluctant to do so. "But Delta's move makes widespread free Wi-Fi much more likely than it seemed recently," Kaplan said.
Another reason why passengers could soon get widespread free inflight Wi-Fi: a thousand years.
"Millennials and younger generations expect free Wi-Fi access everywhere, especially when traveling," said Kelly Soderlund, a travel trends expert with Hipmunk. "As hotels that have been successful in leveraging consumer loyalty through free Wi-Fi, I expect airlines to follow and meet that demand."