Is Free Inflight Wifi a Real Possibility?

We live in an increasingly connected world, which has both good and bad associated with it.  Whether we like it or not that connectivity is only going to increase in coming years, and that includes internet access when we are flying.

In-flight wifi is becoming increasingly more common on airlines around the world with various levels of accessibility and cost across the industry.  For basic travelers they are likely only interested in accessing their email or maybe playing around with social media which can be done relatively inexpensively by purchasing an hour or even a day’s worth of access for those with connecting flights.

Business travelers would likely be interested in greater access which naturally comes with a greater cost.  However, their company is probably going to cover the cost so it likely makes little difference to them how much it costs.

A quick search of a few airline sites revealed that lower end access, which should be sufficient for most people, will cost anywhere from about $5-20.  That isn’t unreasonable, but when you consider many people will have just paid $25 or more just to get their bag on the plane, and may be hungry on the flight which will cost them another $5-10, paying another $20 just may not be worth it to check their email.

On the other hand, if it was free, I think most everyone would use it, if only sparingly.  But how realistic is it to expect widespread free wifi?

It probably isn’t too far-fetched considering some foreign airlines already offer it.  Norwegian offers free access on their domestic flights, and Emirates offers the first 10MB for free on their A380s and 777s.  After that they have a tiered model to pay for certain levels of access.

The reason this even came to mind for me is that Emirates is actively pursuing free wifi for all of their passengers.  Naturally there are some technological and cost restrictions that aren’t allowing that to happen yet, but it is noteworthy that airlines are actively pursuing it.

I personally don’t think many US airlines will provide free wifi access across their fleet, but it may become a feature that they attempt to utilize to distinguish themselves from other offerings. In this era of charging for every little aspect of a flight I just don’t see airlines offering a luxury free of charge.  However, we may see one or two that decide that will help them sell more tickets the way that Southwest has with their free checked bags.

It is not surprising that European and Middle Eastern airlines are leading the way in this area as they generally provide a much better service than US based airlines.  I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before the US airlines are forced to start offering better service because the foreign airlines start taking away the market share.  Regulation will likely prevent that from happening, but with any luck we will see improvements like free wifi becoming more common and maybe even the standard by which all airlines are judged.

What do you think?  Will free wifi ever come to US airlines, or will we have to fly foreign to receive that benefit?