“We’re going to make it free,” said Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, when speaking about his long-term vision for in-flight Wi-Fi during Skift Global Forum in New York City on Friday.
Bastian said free and faster Wi-Fi are things that his customers want. “I don’t know of anywhere else besides in an airplane that you can’t get free Wi-Fi.” He did not, however, specify when that might happen at Delta.
Bastian believes free Wi-Fi would also produce a large step-change function in the connection “between our customers and the airline” for purposes of marketing and branding.
In the past year, United has been making technical upgrades to boost Wi-Fi speeds on selected aircraft.
On Friday, Bastian talked about his high hopes for a new wireless in-flight entertainment (IFE) system that Delta is testing on its new Airbus A220 narrow-body aircraft. “A wireless IFE is great because it means we don’t have to wire the planes anymore,” Bastian said. “We just put the tablet on the back of the seat headrest as a display panel.” If there’s a problem with one screen, it can be more easily isolated and solved in a wireless set-up than in the traditional hard-wired arrangement where a repair may require shutting down Wi-Fi for all passengers.
Bastian said one of the opportunities with next-generation Wi-Fi is savings. He estimated it could cost more than $1 million per plane to install wired IFE, while wireless IFE will cut that cost down “by two-thirds.”
Among U.S.-based airlines, JetBlue is the only large airline currently offering free in-flight Wi-Fi, though the offer is expensive for the carrier.
Robert Isom, who took over as American Airlines’ president in 2016 after serving as its chief operating officer, made comments Thursday at Skift Global Forum that could be interpreted as American being hesitant about going to a free Wi-Fi approach for various commercial and logistical considerations.
The leading U.S. provider of in-flight connectivity is Gogo, but that company has been struggling financially. Delta is the largest early customer for Gogo’s new product, 2Ku satellite broadband service, a boost from the slower ground-based internet delivery system. But installations have been slow, apparently due to a mix of mechanical, technical, and commercial issues.
Delta’s Bastian said that Gogo had been a good partner in the past year and that while Delta had suffered “negative” customer satisfaction scores for its Wi-Fi last year it has been in the positive territory this year, as measured by so-called net promoter score surveys.