As in-flight WiFi slowly becomes more prevalent, airlines are discovering that passenger demand is determined largely by demographics, types of services being offered and the lengths of flights.
On domestic flights, travelers now have access to onboard WiFi 44% of flight time, according to the travel website Routehappy, which tracks airlines’ in-flight experiences such as comfort, amenities and services, including WiFi.
WiFi providers deploy various business models. Gogo, which dominates the in-flight WiFi market in the U.S., is both the service provider and the consumer-facing brand. Its logo is displayed prominently when users go online while flying any of the 1,900 WiFi-enabled aircraft operated by its nine partner airlines.
Brand and service are consistent across all the carriers it serves, which include American Airlines, Air Canada, AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways and Virgin America.
Gogo employs a revenue-sharing model with the airline.
Row 44, in contrast, is essentially a white-label provider; only the airline’s brand is displayed when passengers log on. It has equipped nearly 500 aircraft with WiFi connectivity for airline partners that include Southwest Airlines, Allegiant Air, Icelandair, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Mango Airlines, Transaero and UTair.
Unlike Gogo, Row 44 employs a wholesaler model, providing the bandwidth to the carrier, which then sets its own WiFi pricing. This model allows client airlines greater product flexibility.
Southwest, for example, last month added a new twist to its in-flight WiFi when it announced a partnership with Dish, a pay-TV provider, offering free live and on-demand TV over WiFi.
Normally, Southwest offers two in-flight WiFi services: movies on demand, which had cost $5 but are now free with the Dish sponsorship, and WiFi service, which continues to cost $8.
Under the two companies’ “TV Flies Free” promotion, Dish is sponsoring access to live TV and up to 75 on-demand programs onboard Southwest’s more than 400 WiFi-enabled aircraft as a way to promote its Dish Anywhere and Hopper on-demand services.
This is a limited-time promotion, but Southwest has not announced an end date.
While the airlines continue to experiment with related products and services, the number of flights that offer WiFi continues to grow.
Delta leads the pack with 3,443 WiFi-enabled flights daily, according to Routehappy. Southwest follows with 2,320 daily WiFi-enabled flights, while US Airways ranks third, with 1,293 daily flights.
Several airlines are still working on adding the service, in some cases testing alternative WiFi technologies.
JetBlue Airways, for example has taken a single aircraft out of service for in-flight testing of the WiFi technology it is considering. Morgan Johnston, the airline’s manager of corporate communications, said JetBlue has completed testing with nonfunctioning WiFi equipment installed on the aircraft’s exterior to determine the plane’s airworthiness with the additional equipment, and it has submitted the results to the FAA.
In the past, this sort of process has taken anywhere from a month to a few months, he said. Once it gets FAA certification, the carrier can begin testing the plane with the WiFi technology functioning.
JetBlue is looking at rolling out WiFi in 2014, taking a cautious approach, Johnston said, in order to iron out any technical problems that might arise.
So far, consumer demand for in-flight WiFi has been spotty. On average, slightly more than 6% of passengers purchase it, according to documents Gogo filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But usage varies widely depending on the airline and the length of the route.
Virgin America, for example, which caters to a hip, connected audience, has a substantial uptake on its flights. Transcontinental flights, which are long and filled with business travelers, especially on New York-Los Angeles routes, can also see significant uptakes.
Finnair recently concluded trials and found that 40% of people were willing to pay for in-flight WiFi, said John Walton, director of data for Routehappy.
Even before Southwest’s Dish promotion began, most airlines offered travelers free in-flight WiFi for some services. Depending on the airline they’re flying, passengers can shop on Amazon or with other featured retailers, follow their flight’s progress online and sometimes send a virtual postcard about their in-flight experience at no charge.
Or, they can pay for the service and browse the Web, send and read email or watch movies, depending on what airline they’re flying and the in-flight WiFi provider.
In-flight WiFi availability varies, according to Routehappy, which just issued a report analyzing the subject. The top three routes with the most WiFi-connected flights are Los Angeles-San Francisco, Los Angeles-New York Kennedy and Atlanta-Orlando. However, even on these flights, there is no guarantee a traveler will have WiFi access.
The Los Angeles-San Francisco routes, for example, have the most flights with WiFi, but 30% of the flights on those routes still do not have it. And the fact that 80% of flights between LAX and Kennedy have WiFi means that 20% of flights don’t. So, travelers who find it necessary to be online while in flight must check when they book to see if their flights offer the service.
The only exceptions are Virgin America and AirTran, whose fleets are 100% WiFi-enabled.
Paradoxically, some of the longest flights are least likely to have WiFi, because availability drops significantly when flying overseas. Just 6.5% of international flights from the U.S. have full-flight connectivity, according to Routehappy.
Two airlines, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, offer cellular roaming, according to the Routehappy report, meaning that passengers can connect their cellular devices, but non-cellular devices such as laptops cannot connect. Virgin Atlantic is also running a WiFi trial.
Lufthansa provides the most international WiFi access on flights from the U.S., followed by American.
Etihad flies WiFi-equipped planes between New York Kennedy and Abu Dhabi, and Air Canada offers WiFi on nine routes from the U.S. Other airlines are installing WiFi on their international aircraft; United is installing WiFi for international flights on its Boeing 747s and Airbus A320/A319 fleets.
When evaluating which flights offer travelers the best value when purchasing WiFi, Routehappy found that the minimum length of a flight that can give passengers an hour of online time is 500 miles. Flights of more than 2,000 miles on aircraft with in-seat power receptacles also offer a good return because in addition to getting at least four hours of online time, users can also keep laptops and tablets charged.
In general, in-seat power is important for travelers who want to work through an entire flight. Routehappy reported that in economy, 100% of Virgin America flights and all United Premium Service flights with WiFi also offer power receptacles. Most American Airlines flights with WiFi also offer power.
In addition, would-be laptop users should pay attention to seat pitch when booking. Any less than 30 inches and the person who reclines a seat can make it impossible for the passenger directly behind to use a laptop.Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.