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American, United May Join the Arms Race for Free Inflight Wi-Fi

Airlines free wi-fi

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Delta is leading the charge among the big U.S. airlines to make inflight Wi-Fi free, with hopes of launching it systemwide for all passengers sometime this year. And as so often happens in the aviation industry, American and United might follow their lead.

United Airlines President Scott Kirby said Wednesday that the airline is trying to improve the reliability and performance of onboard Wi-Fi so “that we can make Wi-Fi free for our customers.” At the same time, American is also reportedly considering making Wi-Fi free for passengers, according to View from the Wing. 

The airline industry is a competitive business, and falling a step behind is a surefire way to lose customers. So it makes sense that United and American would copy Delta and at least explore making Wi-Fi free for all passengers.

It’s easier said than done, and it will take time. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see all three major airlines offering free inflight Wi-Fi to travelers within the next year or two.

 

Our Analysis 

It was only a matter of time before American and United joined the rush.

Installing Wi-Fi on planes can be a costly expense for airlines, but U.S. carriers have made great strides in recent years to outfit more and more of their fleets with the technology. Making it free is more of a question of usage – and performance – than an actual cost.

But here’s the major reason why United and American are following Delta’s lead: United and American both lag Delta in on-time performance and customer satisfaction. While Delta is equipping more planes with seatback screens, United and American have ditched them.

Simply put: They can’t afford not to offer free Wi-Fi. Delta already has so many competitive advantages over its peers, letting the Atlanta-based airline stand alone as the only major carrier letting passengers stay connected for free is basically begging to lose business. At the end of the day, making Wi-Fi free is an easy choice and a relatively cheap way to try to stay competitive – or at least not declare defeat.

Still, there are major challenges, which Delta learned firsthand during a limited trial run of free Wi-Fi on select flights this spring. CEO Ed Bastian said: “We learned a lot about the technical capacity challenges when you want to open up wifi free with great broadband capabilities.”

Of course, Delta won’t be the first to offer free inflight Wi-Fi. That distinction goes to jetBlue, which offers free gate to gate Wi-Fi for its passengers.

 

Bottom Line

The monkey-see, monkey-do nature of the airline industry should be a win for passengers. Airlines can’t afford to fall behind the competition, and free inflight Wi-Fi appears to be the next frontier.

 

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Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.

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