In-flight wi-fi has gone from novelty to normal. Now that most international carriers and most domestic carriers in North America and elsewhere have wi-fi on a majority of their flights, what do travelers think of the service? What are we willing to pay? We spoke with two of our experts; Katie Raddatz, Director CWT Solutions Group Americas, Air; and Chad Guillory, Director CWT Solutions Group Americas, Ground & Emerging Practices, to take the pulse of in-flight wi-fi from a traveler perspective.
Savvy: What is the state of airplane wi-fi these days?
CG: All carriers that don’t have wi-fi are scrambling to invest to get it. People are choosing carriers for specific reasons based on wi-fi. If I have to go to L.A., and I have a three and a half hour flight, that’s three and a half hours of productivity. So on that flight, I might choose to make sure I get a flight that has wi-fi, whereas if I’m going to Chicago, and it’s only a 58-minute flight, I might not be able to get anything done anyway.
KR: I think it is a traveler expectation that airlines have it. If they don’t, it’s surprising. I think even the regional carriers, the smaller airplanes are all equipped with wi-fi, typically, for the main line and many of the competing low-cost carriers. It seems that the carriers are trying to explore what the right offering is to get travelers to buy it. I’ve never been able to get this from the airlines but is anyone buying the month-long pass?
CG: I almost did.
KR: Is it something that clients are reimbursing their travelers for? There’s the quick 30-minute connect, so you can do your work and do a quick transmit of all your emails and everything. And then there’s the full length of the flight, and it goes up from there, and varies slightly by carrier. The cost does not appear to be a prohibitor in people utilizing it. I think particularly with business travel, there’s an expectation that you’re working, you’re connected if you’re on a flight. Anything over an hour, for most people, the investment to connect to wi-fi in some fashion or another, exists.
CG: If you think about it, the three megatrends are still personalization, digitization and connectivity. I expect to be fully connected everywhere I go, because when you’re on the ground, everywhere you go you can be connected to free wi-fi, there’s paid wi-fi – no matter what, I can be connected.
KR: And accessible.
CG: And accessible. So it should translate to the air. People are doing it, especially for the millennial group, who are tied to these devices (as are we now, but they don’t know any different), it’s connectivity. I have to be connected everywhere I go. And even on the hour-long flights, if it gets to the time where it’s free, this is my time. I can check on my LinkedIn and do my personal stuff, but I can’t if I’m not connected. In the business world, the leisure world, no matter what, there’s a desire to be connected.
KR: I think initially when wi-fi came out, because of the cost structure, it was mostly business travelers who were using it. Now you see all leisure travelers are; it’s not one camp or the other. Everyone is finding value. It’s just the trend is not so new anymore that I have to pay for things I want on board the airplane, where it used to be you got whatever they offered, one size fits all.
Savvy: Are travelers generally satisfied with the experience?
KR: I think until it goes down. And it rarely goes down but if it does, you can visually see how frustrated people are, because it’s become the expectation that it just works. It’s not so novel anymore, like when it initially rolled out, there were inconsistencies. Now it’s just the expectation, so if it’s not working, it’s a big deal.
CG: I totally agree, but my personal experience is I would say at least on a quarter of my flights it doesn’t work well.
KR: Oh? I haven’t had that experience.
CG: It seems like it happens more frequently to me. I’ll get intermittent service throughout the flight, and when I’ve lost connectivity I’m trying to figure out, is it me, or is it the plane? You don’t know. You see people talking to the flight attendants. To me it feels like it’s sketchy. When it’s working, it’s good. But I want to count on it and I’ve personally had problems.
Savvy: Do you see the price point moving up? If people are willing to pay for it as is, they’re probably willing to pay more, also.
KR: There may be some market testing happening with that, as in what is the right threshold based on the length of the flight.
CG: It is like that. When I go to L.A., it changes – it’s $19.95 starting here to there. If you start halfway through your flight, it’s more like $14.95. Anything with pricing is completely driven by competition. As long as there’s no competition, will there be price decreases? I would doubt it.
Savvy: More specifically, how about supply and demand within a specific flight? If you have so many people logging onto the system that it’s overloaded and not delivering useful bandwidth for anybody, think about pricing it like an HOV lane where the price goes up if the lanes are clogged.
CG: Or Uber, where there are so many people coming on that you have surge pricing. That could be the next evolution. They have the technology for it. Nobody’s using the service? How about I give it to you for $4? Now how many people are going to log on? The question is how you communicate that to people.
KR: How do you communicate it when I have my laptop in my bag under my seat?
CG: If I’m on that team, that’s what I’m thinking. Right now, we have so many people on this flight with their laptops in their bag. Can I get the flight attendant to say, ‘We’re halfway through the flight. If you want to get online, it’s only $5.’
Savvy: I haven’t heard either of you talk about the traveler who resents now having to be universally available, where on a flight they used to have time to themselves.
KR: I’m inaccessible for two hours!
CG: I think that comes more along the lines of the phone. As soon as I see them start allowing people to make phone calls, that’s when I’m going to get irritated. Right? Because that’s coming.
KR: I think that’s a whole other level, but there used to be a feeling that you could get caught up when you’re in the air. Now people see you if you’re connected, and you start getting instant messages and it’s as if you’re just across the hallway.
CG: That’s how I manage it. I get on my laptop, go through all my messages, do some work, type out a bunch of stuff to send. Then I log in for the 30-minute window near the end of the flight and send. I’ll get a few back, but I still got a chance to work in peace and quiet for once.
We’ll have more of our chat with Katie and Chad next week, when we’ll talk about in-flight wi-fi from the travel manager perspective. Where will airlines innovate next, and what do companies need to do to manage and negotiate how much they’re spending to connect travelers in the air?