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Why Airlines and Airports Alike Need to Embrace Free Wi-Fi

Jun 27, 2014 7:30 am

Skift Take

The double standard on Tyler’s comment is clear, as are the benefits some airlines have realized they can gain if they ignore him.

— Marisa Garcia

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Passengers using United's in-flight Wi-Fi. United Airlines


You’re going to be able to access the internet everywhere some day soon, without having to pay for it.

You know that. We know that. The Finns know that. So do airlines and airports. It’s only a matter of when.

Tony Tyler, Director General and CEO of IATA feels it’s high-time that airports got around to giving passengers free, easy to access, Wi-Fi at all terminals around the world. He said so at the SITA IT Summit last week, when addressing attendees.

Skift was present and asked Tyler whether he believed airlines should offer free Wi-Fi on board to passengers, and that was when Tyler’s forward-thinking moment passed. “No,” he replied, appearing annoyed with our silly question.

The argument, not only by Tyler but from others present, was that comparing Wi-Fi at airports to Wi-Fi on planes wasn’t apples-to-iPhones. Infrastructure to provide Wi-Fi on aircraft, we were told, is much more complicated than infrastructure to provide Wi-Fi in airport terminals.

A helpful member of the audience wrote us, via Twitter, that rocket launches are involved; but was unable to satisfactorily answer a follow-up question, via Twitter, on whether fees paid by passengers for Wi-Fi cover the costs of those rocket launches.

A member of the audience, who identified himself as United Airlines, replied that airlines do provide free Wi-Fi; giving as his example passengers who crowd the terminal area around the United Airlines Lounges, so they can use the lounge Wi-Fi intended for lounge customers.

These are the times we live in — when ordinary decent people can’t count on keeping the Riff-Raff away from their exclusive Wi-Fi transmissions — which only serves to lower the quality of the connection for everybody.

In fact, that argument makes sense, both on the ground and in the air. With insufficient bandwidth, the quality of the connection deteriorates with every additional user on the network — whether or not they hold a United Airlines loyalty membership card.

But, at the heart of all of this is the quest for revenue. Even if it is only the promise of revenue. As Skift has previously reported, the number of passengers willing to reach for their wallets to pay for Wi-Fi onboard is very small.

It is so small that some airlines, despite the thinking of Tyler and peers, have opted to offer free Wi-Fi, in full or in part, to their customers.

Norwegian Airlines offers free Wi-Fi to its passengers on European routes (which is where it is available for now), because, they have told Skift, people expect it and there’s not much point to charging for it. They view it as a product enhancement, a way to keep customers happy.

JetBlue currently offers their Simply Surf Fly-Fi service for free, marketed as the fastest active Wi-Fi connection in the sky. The introductory free period was supposed to end this month, but JetBlue has decided to extend it.

JetBlue also announced at the SITA IT Summit that it will launch a second satellite to expand Fly-Fi capabilities. Nok Air offers free Wi-Fi to their passengers, and, yesterday, Saudi Arabian Airlines announced that their premium passengers will receive free OnAir Wi-Fi onboard.

Ian Dawkins, Chief Executive Officer at OnAir, told us at the Brussels Summit that Wi-Fi will soon become a differentiating commodity, and that airlines are likely to start offering some level of connectivity onboard free-of-charge, with other premium services providing the revenue opportunities.

On the Ground

But what about Tyler’s point? Why can’t airports offer free Wi-Fi? We can report that has already happened.

Thella Bowens, President and CEO of San Diego County Regional Airport, who made an impressive presentation to attendees of the many technical advancements made at San Diego to enhance the passenger experience, advised Tyler that he could already get free Wi-Fi at her airport. And San Diego is not alone. Free Wi-Fi is coming to an airport near you, if it isn’t there already.

We asked Robert O’Meara, Director, Media & Communications ACI (Airports Council International) Europe, to tell us how soon we might expect other airports to catch-up, and what he thought of Tyler’s Wi-Fi double standard.

“IATA’s call for airports to provide free, unlimited Wi-Fi is rather like if ACI suddenly called for all the airlines to offer free, unlimited ice-cream to all their passengers,” he told us. “As you pointed out [with your question], Mr Tyler is asking another industry to do something that he is unwilling to ask of his own.”

“Let’s be fair – provision of Wi-Fi in either case brings very different challenges – at airports, it entails ensuring adequate coverage over a very large space (usually over several floors and in some cases, multiple buildings), to an extremely high number of users (staff on the airport site, passengers, visitors) with varying and irregular peaks of consumption.”

“On an airliner, there is a relatively smaller space to cover, a finite number of users (defined by the number of seats on board) and consumption is aligned with the duration of the flight. However, ensuring good coverage at altitude is one of the challenges for them. I would be interested to hear more about the cost comparison that IATA alludes to have carried out on this.”

O’Meara points out that European airports, for their part, are already making progress.

“Preliminary research we undertook on this during the month of May, revealed that 95% of passengers now travel through European airports offering free Wi-Fi. Some of those airports offer it for up to 30 minutes, some offer it for a couple of hours and an increasing number offer unlimited free Wi-Fi. This entails significant investment and maintenance – consider the example of Helsinki Airport, where between January 2009 and January 2013, the user volume on their free Wi-Fi rose by 3,000% and they nearly tripled the number of Wi-Fi broadcast bases and increased the speed of Wi-Fi at the airport.”

The hike of 3,000% usage is shocking, and reveals just how much additional infrastructure needs to be put in place to cover a large public area when converting to a free platform. Finns have only themselves to blame for this pickle. They were the ones who declared internet-access a basic legal right in Finland.

But that’s where we’re all headed. As O’Meara tells us: “In our recently released ‘Guidelines for Passenger Services at European Airports’, we have noted that the perception of Wi-Fi has shifted in recent years – from being a bonus feature of the experience at an airport, to being expected–much like with hotels, cafés and some other public spaces.”

“Airports are responding to this shift of their own accord. With each passing month, more and more of them are launching better, longer, free Wi-Fi. The latest example being Aéroports de Paris, who will launch fully unlimited Wi-Fi on 1 July.”

Yet another good reason to go to Paris this summer: Égalité, Fraternité, Connectivité.

O’Meara also points out: “There are plenty of European airports offering free Wi-Fi – Shannon (free unlimited), Dublin (free, unlimited), Swedavia (3 hours free), Frankfurt (1 hour free), Zurich (1 hour free) and many, many more offering 30 minutes or an hour for free.”

Whether airline or airport or hotel or cruise ship, Wi-Fi today may be for the privileged few, but the writing is on the firewall and there is revolution in the air. As Dawkins told us, it is viewed as a commodity and a differentiating factor.

Neither airlines or airports can recoup the real costs of this infrastructure from simple connection fees. Some have already decided it’s not worth trying, when there’s so much to gain by being among the first to give it away.

Marisa Garcia has worked in aviation since 1994, spending 16 years on the design and manufacturing of cabin interiors and cabin safety equipment. She shares insights gained from this experience on Flight Chic and Tweets as @designerjet.

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