Flyers Want In-Flight WiFi but Don't Want to Pay for It

More than 20 airlines around the world provide free in-flight WiFi today, and based on SITA's estimation, more than double that will do so by 2020.

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Passengers want in-flight connectivity, but very few expect to pay for it, according to a report by connected airline specialist SITA OnAir.

SITA's passenger research shows nearly every passenger has the potential to be connected, with 97 percent carrying a personal electronic device of some form onboard.

The research found 81 percent carry a smartphone, 43 percent bring a tablet, 43 percent fly with a laptop, and 18 percent bring along a phone, a tablet and a laptop.

Different business models have been adopted to meet this demand, with Emirates providing free WiFi for all its passengers in every class as a standard cabin service.

Singapore Airlines also provides free WiFi for its premium passengers, sponsored by an external company. In this case, Citibank covers the implementation costs of the promotion.

More than 20 airlines around the world are providing free in-flight WiFi today and, according to SITA OnAir's estimation, more than double will do it by 2020.

"People are used to having free WiFi in restaurants, cafés and hotels, for example. We expect free WiFi access wherever we are, and that includes being on a plane. Because of passenger demand for free WiFi, perhaps a different question is to ask how realistic it is for airlines not to provide it for free," Charlie Pryor, senior manager of corporate communications at SITA, told eWEEK. "Airlines do see a competitive advantage. Anecdotally, airlines have said passengers ask about WiFi during the booking process, for example."

He noted SITA OnAir already provides passenger connectivity to 22 airlines around the world, on both wide-bodied and narrow-bodied aircraft, for short haul and long haul.

"The number of aircraft equipped with both on-board mobile phone and WiFi networks is increasing every week—it is only a matter of time before every aircraft has connectivity," he said.

Analyzing the in-flight traffic on the company's networks, more than half the most used apps are for messaging, email or voice over IP; the most widespread ones are WhatsApp, iMessage, Snapshot, Gmail and FaceTime.

The next biggest group of apps is social media, where Facebook, Twitter and Instagram come out on top. Search engines like Google and Yahoo are also popular, as are YouTube, Spotify, Google Maps and Apple Maps.

In the future, new satellite networks will provide high-speed bandwidth and much more capacity, bringing in-flight WiFi in line with terrestrial services, Pryor said.

"For example, Inmarsat will launch GX Aviation later this year. Three satellites make up the constellations, providing 50MB per second to the aircraft everywhere in the world," he said. "The high-speed connection will enable passengers to stream high-definition videos, for instance."