Why is it taking U.S. airlines so long to offer in-flight Wi-Fi?
A voucher for free wi-fi onboard a Virgin American flight. Glenn Fleishman / Flickr.com
Airlines juggle a commitment to outfitting their jets with Wi-Fi alongside bankruptcy, remaining profitable, and finding time to take aircraft off the runway. The process is slow, but Wi-Fi will eventually be ubiquitous on airlines used by business travelers.
Over 82 flights travel between New York City and Los Angeles every day transporting executives and employees to client meetings and deal signings. Of the 82 flights between the two cities, there’s a 67 percent chance that the business traveler will jump on a jet with Wi-Fi if randomly electing a flight.*
This is a much stronger statistic than the overall ratio of WiFi-enabled domestic flights in the sky today. Only 31 percent of the approximately 12,890 domestic non-stop flights that take off in the U.S. every weekday offer Internet access, according to data compiled by Routehappy.
Routehappy broke down the percentage of daily flights equipped with Wi-Fi by airline for Skift; however, the chart doesn’t show the ubiquity of connected jets within each airline. Although Virgin America and AirTran only make up 3 percent of total daily flights, 100 percent of the aircraft for those two airlines are Wi-Fi enabled, guaranteeing a traveler access to the Internet. Deltahas the largest percentage of connected daily flights nationwide, but only about 65 percent of their fleet is actually equipped.
There doesn’t tend to be a pervasiveness of Wi-Fi on long-haul versus short-haul routes. The connectivity on routes depends on the airlines and hubs. Routehappy found the top ten one-way routes with Wi-Fi were either leaving or arriving at Atlanta’s Hatfield-Jackson Airtport, where Delta is headquartered.
In-flight plugs are also becoming more important to travelers who now have reason to keep their devices juiced up on long flights. Virgin America jets have a plug at every seat, only some rows have plugs on American and Delta, and JetBlue passengers are left with no plugs at all.
Many passengers are surprised to find that JetBlue doesn’t offer Wi-Fi on any of their flights and is actually one of the last U.S. airlines to begin equipping its aircraft. The installation process will begin with the airline’s Embraer E190 and Airbus A320 jets in the first quarter of 2013. The FAA approves Wi-Fi installation by aircraft make and model, not by airline.
The order in which aircraft are equipped isn’t decided by its route or distance, but is dependent on aircraft scheduling, explains a JetBlue spokeswoman. JetBlue will be the first U.S. airline to work with ViaSat, which connects to the Internet via satellite to supposedly offer superior speed and bandwidth. No pricing model has been released at this time.
The decision to ignore Wi-Fi
“Based as we are in the middle of the Pacific, we fly long distances over water and therefore would have to rely on satellite-based technology rather than a ground-based product. We have yet to find a technology for over-water flying that we think provides the right combination of good user experience and value for money for our guests.
Secondly, as a principally leisure-oriented traveler, we have seen less interest from our guests in in-flight wireless than our more business-travel-oriented competitors. Our focus is on providing the kind of in-flight hospitality that matters to our guests.”
How long until ubiquitous connectivity?
It looks as though flyers will no longer have to worry about jumping on the right jet with Wi-Fi as airlines amp up their installations. Often passengers ask how come Wi-Fi isn’t already on every flight and the answer is: time, money, and priorities.
American Airlines’ installations have been slowed by bankruptcy dealings, United Airlines outfitted 12 jets with Gogo but will complete the process with Panasonic, and JetBlue waited for the satellite-based solution offered through ViaSat.
* This number of 82 flights might seem awfully low, but its only accounts for non-stop flights on U.S. airlines between New York’s three major airports and LAX on weekdays.