Has COVID Killed All Hope Of Free Airline WiFi?

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As airlines around the world look for ways to cut costs, some have already begun removing free WiFi from their perks. This time last year, there were hopes that, eventually, inflight WiFi would be free for all. Has the outbreak of COVID-19 completely squashed all hopes of this ever being a reality?

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Is free inflight WiFi for all a bygone dream? Photo: LATAM

With less money in the bank, will inflight WiFi ever be free?

Prior to COVID, a number of airlines were working to make WiFi free and accessible to all. Delta Air Lines, in particular, had long been searching for the right solution to bring free WiFi to its customers, and United, too, was hoping to implement it soon. But with airlines around the world now strapped for cash, has the hope of free inflight connectivity vanished from our future?

In a webinar delivered by Future Travel Experience (FTE) and The Arline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), President and CEO of APEX, Dr Joe Leader, expressed a conviction that connectivity will continue to be provided. However, he also warned that offering free inflight WiFi might have hit a bump in the road. He said,

“The one difference is that when airlines are financially stressed, they would want to make sure they provide connectivity to passengers that are willing to pay for that connectivity.

“Even airlines like Emirates that are historically offering free connectivity for their business and first-class passengers, have announced that they are moving to a pay-as-you-go model, which simply means that they want people who value the connectivity and are willing to pay for it. This means slowing the process of connectivity being offered for free until airlines are in a stronger financial health.”

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Delta was hoping to bring free WiFi to all passengers. Photo: Delta

Previously, despite the lack of free WiFi onboard for economy passengers, many airlines offered the service to their premium fliers. Cathay’s first class passengers could get it for free, as could British Airways’ First fliers. But last month, as Joe said, Emirates took this away, and other airlines could soon follow suit.

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It might not be free, but there could be more connectivity

The hidden benefit of an event like COVID is that aircraft are on the ground for a very long time. Whereas airlines often have to balance taking capacity out of their fleets with the need to upgrade products and services, now they have free rein to undertake all those projects that were already in the pipeline.

Air Canada Rouge
Grounded fleets offer an opportunity for upgrades. Photo: Getty Images

Of course, the downside is that the airlines have less money in their pockets to get these upgrades done. Nevertheless, it seems many are still working on upgrading and investing in their fleets, ready to come back better than ever. Dr Leader said,

“We have seen some pullback on capital expenditure, but one of the things I have asked airline executives is whether they will use the fleet downtime to upgrade their aircraft to use more connectivity, and the answer is ‘yes’.”

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This means we could see a much greater penetration of inflight connectivity in the post-COVID fleet, something that will be welcomed by millions of data-hungry passengers. Although the potential for widespread free WiFi onboard might have been knocked back a little, as recovery advances, we’ll hopefully enjoy a modernized fleet in our skies.

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