What Can In-Flight Phone Service Teach Us About In-Flight Wi-Fi?

If you are like me, you spend quite a bit of time sitting on an airplane. Over the years, the amount of flight-time has increased too. At the same time our professional and personal lives are becoming “always on”. Meaning, that we have a growing need to stay connected…digitally. It could be to respond to email, check the latest updates from Facebook, follow a Twitter feed or surf the Internet. The direct solution appears to be in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity. Sure, in-flight phone service has existed for many years now. And, in the days of dialup Internet access, one could use the in-flight phone to connect to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and download email. However, the in-flight Wi-Fi service, and phone service to some degree, has hit a bit of turbulence along the way. Let me explain.

History

Airfone (air-to-ground phone service) was originally developed in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s, planes offered the service to paying customers. It was simple to use. Just swipe your credit card in the built-in reader on the handset and make the call. The service, however, was very expensive. Of late, calls could cost as much as $5.00 per minute!

In the 1990’s you would see people using the phones every once in a while. But it was not frequent. In the past decade, service declined even further. In the past few years, the service has been sold to a LiveTV, an affiliate of JetBlue. While several carriers still have handsets installed, US Airways and Delta have removed the phones from their planes.

Wi-Fi Enabled Planes

Fast forward to 2012. Communications moved from voice to data. People rely on email as much as they did voice calls. In response, in-flight Wi-Fi services made their entrance onto everyday flights. Over time, more and more flights are including Wi-Fi service in the air. That is, the ability to connect your smartphone, tablet or laptop to the Internet via the plane’s Wi-Fi connectivity. Even though many planes have added this functionality, Wi-Fi equipped planes are not ubiquitous. Airlines have committed to adding Wi-Fi capabilities to more planes over the coming years. The two main providers are Gogo (http://www.gogoair.com/) and Row 44 (http://www.row44.com/). Row 44 is equipping Southwest Airline’s planes while Gogo is the provider for many of the other carriers providing in-flight Wi-Fi service.

In an age where most major carriers have filed for bankruptcy, additional services bring potential revenue streams and additional expenses. It is a risky gamble for airlines where every nickel, dime and dollar is scrutinized for operational efficiencies. But is simply installing the service enough?

Service Costs

The expenses to equip planes are one thing. Recovering those costs from paying customers is another. Over the 30 years that in-flight phone service was available, the costs continued to increase. At the same time, demand for in-flight phone service decreased. Costs going up and demand going down is a sure recipe for failure.

Currently, costs to use in-flight Wi-Fi can range from $5-$15 per flight depending on distance, carrier and service. That may not seem like a lot if your company is willing to reimburse the expense. It may also make sense if you consider the productive time while connected. But it depends on “what” you are using the connectivity for. If you are only surfing the web, checking Facebook or Tweeting about each cloud and city you pass, the cost may not be warranted.

In-flight phone service was more of a novelty or critical use-case that warranted the use. Current data shows in-flight Wi-Fi may be taking a similar path. While many may not be swayed to pay the $5-15 per flight, it is enough to keep most at bay. There are monthly service plans for frequent flyers. In the past year, providers did offer a promotion for free service over the holidays. But again, is it worth it? And will it be enough to offset the costs to the carrier/ provider? Or are we reliving in-flight phone service all over again without learning from the lesson?

Usage Statistics

It begs the question: Just how many people are actually taking advantage of the service? Recent reports show that use is still relatively low. It is probable that “how” the service is used coupled with service costs contribute directly to the actual usage. If the costs (to the consumer) were lower,

If those reports are correct, will service providers turn a profit and keep the service intact? Below, is an infographic from Gogo based on research they conducted during the first half of 2011. It is one perspective on how people are using in-flight Wi-Fi and with which devices.

Related Items

It would be amiss not to mention the related issues with in-flight Wi-Fi. One of the key issues is power. Unless you’re using a tablet or laptop with long battery life (and a fully charged battery), you are going to run out of juice. Having a power outlet available is not just a handy item, but necessary for most to fully take advantage of in-flight Wi-Fi for the entire flight. Unfortunately, not all planes include power ports. The ones who do offer power ports typically only offer them in Business Class or First Class. Of those that offer power in Economy Class, it may be every other row, only certain sections of Economy Class or every other seat. In addition, the type of connection may vary between proprietary EmPower outlets, 12v cigarette lighter style plugs or regular 110v US plugs.

Bottom Line: In-flight Wi-Fi has not hit the “sweet-spot” for price point vs. service use vs. availability. Until it reaches closer to that point, it will fail to gain significant altitude.

For further reading:

USA Today: Wi-Fi Service Slow to Take Off

http://travel.usatoday.com/flights/story/2012-01-16/Wi-Fi-use-in-the-air-is-slow-to-take-off/52601856/1

Economist: Continued Unpopularity of In-Flight Wi-Fi

http://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2011/12/flight-wi-fi

Verizon Cancelling In-Flight Phone Service

http://articles.latimes.com/2006/jun/27/business/fi-briefs27.3

JetBlue LiveTV to Buy Verizon’s Airfone Network

http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/06/09/us-jetblue-verizon-idUSN0944090420080609

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