Delta executives have been teasing the prospect of offering free Wi-Fi to all travelers on board for months. Most recently, CEO Ed Bastian said it would launch in “another year or two.”
To that end, Delta announced Thursday it is launching a pilot program of the free Wi-Fi offering beginning Monday, May 13. The trial will rotate between 55 different domestic flights every day for two weeks. Delta isn't saying which flights will get free Wi-Fi service, but travelers booked on these flights will get a heads up via email and the Delta app. It will be available on short-, medium-, and long-haul routes within the U.S.
“Customers are accustomed to having access to free Wi-Fi during nearly every other aspect of their journey, and Delta believes it should be free when flying, too,” Ekrem Dimbiloglu, Delta's director of Onboard Product. “Testing will be key to getting this highly complex program right – this takes a lot more creativity, investment and planning to bring to life than a simple flip of a switch.”
The free Wi-Fi will only be available on planes equipped with its newest GoGo 2Ku technology, which comprises about 60 percent of its fleet. Delta says streaming services like Netflix won't be available during these trial flights, but passengers will be able to browse the web, shop, use social media, and more.
The issue here is making sure that internet speeds don’t crater as more and more passengers get online. Forcing passengers to pay for Wi-Fi access is an easy way to ensure internet speeds aren’t throttled in the air. It will no doubt take some time for Delta to upgrade its systems to do so.
And Dimbiloglu said it will also require more trial periods to finetune. So don't expect to get free Wi-Fi on all Delta flights anytime soon.
“As with any test in uncharted territory, Delta will rely heavily on customer and employee feedback to navigate how to best make free in-flight Wi-Fi a reality,” Dimbiloglu said.
Delta already has some of the best Wi-Fi available in the skies, thanks to the Gogo 2Ku internet available on the majority of its fleet. And the airline is also ahead of the competition when it comes to keeping passengers connected. More than 95 percent of its seats have Wi-Fi access, leaving just some small, 50-seat regional jets without it. That’s more like 90 percent for United and 85 percent on American, according to a 2018 Routehappy report.
Delta currently charges at least $16 for a day-long Wi-Fi pass, and nearly double that for international flights. Passengers can already connect to send messages for free, or use the onboard entertainment streaming system to a laptop or tablet.
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. But Delta’s fleet is much larger, and the prospect of free Wi-Fi on even long international flights is promising.
We're still likely months away from a full-scale, free Wi-Fi model on Delta flights – if not a year or more. It will take time to finetune their systems, continue upgrading the fleet with high speed Wi-Fi, and get the pieces of the program in place. In order to protect high-speed service, it's also possible that Delta will still charge customers for the highest speed access, offering only a lower quality Wi-Fi access for free.
Either way, it's an exciting development. Delta continually leads the pack among the big three domestic airlines. This is just the latest reminder.
Free Wi-Fi for all Delta flyers is an exciting prospect. Let us know if you're on one of these test flights, and how the service performs. And stay tuned for updates on when this will roll out further!
Lead photo courtesy of Delta News Hub via Flickr