Delta Will Give Free Inflight Internet To All Domestic Mainline Passengers

In March 2019 Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the airline would offer free wifi within “a year or two.” They needed to ensure they had enough bandwidth for everyone to use it, since not charging would mean far greater usage.

Delta tested just how much people used wifi when it’s free and found that their Gogo inflight internet couldn’t handle it without degrading service. The airline has since moved to retrofit planes with ViaSat internet which works faster. (American Airlines has mostly ViaSat on its domestic fleet, but Gogo on legacy US Airways Airbus A319s and A320s, and the difference is noticeable even with a fee.)

Now that they’ve made progress, and through what seems to be the worst economic times of the pandemic for airlines, Delta is on the verge of launching free domestic wifi on mainline aircraft, according to an internal memo reported by Thrifty Traveler.

  • Some flights this summer are getting a free wifi test and this will last through end of year
  • Delta will “soon launch complimentary inflight Wi-Fi service on its domestic mainline routes.”
  • Regional jets, which don’t currently offer high speed satellite wifi, will not offer free wifi (I expect that to change in the coming years)
  • International flights should see free service by end of 2024

We don’t know yet whether Delta will offer a free internet tier, and a paid option for higher speeds, of whether everyone will have access to the service’s full capabilities.

American Airlines Has Been Prepared To Match Whatever Delta Does

This spring American Airlines tested free wifi on certain routes, measuring usage and advertiser-supported monetization opportunities. They know free wifi is coming, though as recently as the fall they were looking for new ways to sell wifi rather than provide it free.

  • If Delta is free, American needs to be. When it looked like Delta was going to announce free wifi in 2019 American even had the press releases written, ready to pull the trigger matching whatever Delta did.

  • American’s Northeast Alliance partner JetBlue already provides free high speed wifi, and American’s current pricing (up to $30 per flight) is unsustainable when other airlines charge $5 – $15.

To date American has only been willing to do partnerships that entail revenue like whitelisting TikTok and also Facebook Messenger as temporary promotions, despite publicly announcing free on board messaging to match the competition at Media and Investor Day in 2017 before quietly reneging.

American’s domestic mainline fleet largely has the capacity for free wifi today. With Delta sharing internally that they are about to pull the trigger, American should announce publicly now, and beat Delta to launch. They almost have to follow suit. They knew this and were ready to say so publicly three years ago. If it’s inevitable, why not get some positive juice for it as the “world’s first global airline to offer free high speed wifi”?

United Airlines Can’t Match Delta Yet

During the United Airlines earnings call in July 2019 Scott Kirby declared wifi would be free on his airline. He just had to get enough bandwidth on board in order to do it.

The carrier’s new domestic aircraft, and retrofit older narrrowbodies are supposed to offer wifi that is fast enough.

With Delta pushing free wifi into the market, and United already speaking to the need to offer it, we can expect United to eventually get there.

For now though United’s wifi is far less functional than American’s or Delta’s. They do not have the bandwidth to offer it free. It’s barely usable much of the time even under the current paid model which gets less use than a $0 price point will entail.

Onboard Internet Was Always Going To Be Free

I argued in 2012 that inflight wifi would be free within 10 years. There first needed to be enough bandwidth so that one passenger’s use of the service didn’t trade off with another passenger’s use.

Even Southwest Airlines has been rapidly improving its wifi speeds and will be deploying high speed internet which should put them in a position to compete with free.

Once bandwidth was no longer a scarce commodity, bundling it into ticket price is a revenue-maximizing strategy for the same reason that cable companies offer channel bundles.

I never quite counted JetBlue’s long-time free high speed internet as vindicating the prediction, but Delta’s move does and it was just slightly delayed by the global pandemic. As long as the bandwidth holds, such that they can still deliver a quality inflight internet experience, other carriers are going to have to follow.

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