Technical Reasons Prevent Delta Air Lines From Offering Free Wifi

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Inflight WiFi service is increasingly becoming a standard feature for commercial air travel. However, the onboard feature still has a premium charge attached to it – especially if you want more than just basic messaging for your smartphone. Delta Air Lines has been working towards providing free WiFi for its passengers for quite some time now. But speaking at a travel forum yesterday, its CEO says that technical limitations are preventing a full roll out across his fleet.

In May Delta conducted a limited test of its free WiFi. Photo: Delta Airlines.

Testing in May

It was earlier this year in May that the airline was conducting an ‘initial, limited test’ on around 55 domestic flight segments. Passengers had an opportunity to surf the internet free of charge for about two weeks. This was available on select short-, medium- and long-haul routes in hopes that free WiFi would be added, “as part of its leading suite of complimentary onboard entertainment options”. In its press release regarding the trial, Delta had this to say:

“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.”

American, United and Delta passengers have the option of purchasing monthly WiFi packages for $45-50. Photo: American Airlines

The test results

Speaking in New York City at a forum held by Skift, Delta CEO Ed Bastian says there are still some technical kinks to iron out. Speaking directly about the May test findings, Bastian discussed the limitations the airline has run into:

“We are working hard with Gogo on the technical features…It is really just a question of technical. It is not economics. I am nervous that if we turned it on, it’s going to cause system outages.”

Gogo is an inflight internet service provider and works airlines around the world to offer the feature. This includes Delta Air Lines as well as the other two major US carriers. While Bastian says that Gogo has made improvements on reliability, it still doesn’t work as intended under heavy usage.

According to The Points Guy, the airline found in tests that passengers may connect as many as three devices each on a long flight when the service is free. Considering how many passengers there are on a full Boeing 777, it is understandable that bandwidth may be an issue.

How does Delta compare?

As far as its standing among the three major US carriers, Delta seems to be on par for WiFi service and cost. This isn’t a surprise as Gogo is the company that currently powers all three carriers. However, American Airlines also offers WiFi service from Viasat.  United, like Delta, is working towards going totally free.

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We can also look to smaller US airline JetBlue for a good example of free WiFi. The airline already offers complimentary high-speed internet on its flights. This service is also provided by Viasat. It’s been two years since Popular Mechanics wrote an article comparing Gogo and Jetblue Fly-Fi, but they seemed to think the latter was a much better experience.

Delta A321 interior
Delta expects the free wifi service will improve the in-flight experience for passengers. Photo: Delta.

Conclusion

It’s clear that providing free high-speed internet to tens of thousands of passengers (and their multiple devices) simultaneously is no easy task. There’s still some work needed, as Bastian says in his conversation with Skift:

“There were some successes…There were some things we found out that we hoped not to find out, in terms of the work needed until we can go for free.”

So for now, you’ll be limited to free messaging or paying for faster service, or flying on JetBlue and its smaller network of destinations.

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I’ve experienced free limited messaging capabilities of both Air France and Saudia. I would definitely do more if given access to free, ‘regular speed’ WiFi. What has your experience been with inflight WiFi? Is there one airline that stands out as better than the rest? Let us know by leaving a comment.

We reached out to Delta for a comment but at the time of publishing this article, no official statement has been provided. We’ll update this article if we get anything.

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