For all the progress airlines in recent years have made to
expand wireless inflight Internet access, such services are available on less
than a third of daily domestic U.S. flights, and only a small percentage of
passengers pay to log on. While travelers gradually are using inflight Internet
more often, airlines continue to work toward Wi-Fi ubiquity—even if they lose
money getting there.
As of Monday, 31 percent of domestic flights in the United States were equipped with Wi-Fi, according to an analysis provided to BTN by
flight rating website Routehappy.
As the dominant provider in the United States, Gogo in an
August U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing disclosed that as of June
30, it had outfitted 1,565 commercial aircraft with wireless Internet
capabilities—a 36 percent increase from the same period in 2011.
For the first half of 2012, Gogo reported a 5.4 percent
usage rate among commercial airline passengers flying on Gogo-equipped
aircraft. That figure had grown from 4.3 percent during the same period in
Delta Air Lines operated more than half of all domestic
flights with Wi-Fi access, according to Routehappy.
While the carrier has enabled Gogo's wireless connectivity
across its mainline fleet as well as on two-class regional services, the lack
of availability on smaller regional jets explains why about 35 percent of
Delta's domestic flights don't have wireless access. Delta, meanwhile, has
plans underway to tap into Gogo's nascent satellite technology to offer
transoceanic Internet access. Some international and domestic players similarly
are evaluating or rolling out Wi-Fi technology for overseas flights.
Southwest Airlines operated the second-highest number of
flights in U.S. airspace with wireless access, representing 35 percent of its
flights, according to Routehappy. The carrier has broken with the pack by
partnering with Row 44, a competitor to Gogo. Meanwhile, 100 percent of flights
operated by Southwest's AirTran subsidiary offer Gogo Wi-Fi. Similarly, Virgin
American has installed wireless access fleetwide.
Routehappy reported that 22 percent of American Airlines'
domestic flights offered wireless services. That number is likely to spike in
the coming years as the carrier through 2017 refreshes its narrowbody fleet,
including widespread Wi-Fi access in domestic markets.
US Airways also is poised to greatly expand the service.
While only 8 percent of its flights currently enable Wi-Fi, according to
Routehappy, the carrier in March announced plans by mid-2013 to expand Gogo inflight
Internet service to 90 percent of its mainline domestic fleet as well as some
Among the largest U.S. carriers, United Airlines is
currently the laggard. While Routehappy estimates that less than 1 percent of
United's flights are equipped with Wi-Fi, the carrier by 2015 plans to outfit
its entire mainline fleet—including aircraft serving transoceanic routes—using
Panasonic-powered satellite system.
As airlines continue to rapidly expand onboard Internet
access, it would appear that at least for now some are doing so at a loss.
"The usage rates are low," US Airways president
Scott Kirby told journalists during a March meeting in Phoenix. "Ours are
consistent with the industry; they are below 5 percent. The break-evens across
the industry at large are more than 20 percent. That said, I think it's going
to be something that becomes prevalent across the industry because of
Citing competitive reasons, JetBlue this week revealed its
plans beginning early next year to outfit aircraft with Wi-Fi in conjunction
with ViaSat and its LiveTV subsidiary. According to a memo posted on technology
publication The Verge and validated by the carrier, chief commercial officer
Robin Hayes claimed the JetBlue's solution would operate at speeds faster than
those available in the marketplace. Additionally, the carrier "decided to
make the baseline connectivity free, at least until the first 30 aircraft are
equipped with our service," according to Hayes.
According to flight information provider FlightView, which
this year surveyed more than 600 business travelers, 28 percent expressed
dissatisfaction Wi-Fi options provided by airlines.
"Currently, Wi-Fi on board is a competitive
advantage," according to the JetBlue memo. "Customers, especially
those traveling for business, with everything else being equal, will choose the
airline that offers connectivity, even if the service is spotty or
While a handful of travel buyers speaking with BTN last week
said they had not seen evidence that their corporate travelers are choosing
flights based on Wi-Fi availability, one indicated early signs that the amenity
is driving some purchasing decisions.
"We've seen direct markets where there are two
carriers—one that has Wi-Fi and one that doesn't—and the bleed is
happening," said Oracle travel buyer Rita Visser. "The only thing we
can contribute that to is the availability of Wi-Fi."