The Marvel — and Tradeoff — of Inflight Internet
Inflight internet is one of the truly amazing advances that’s made a direct difference in life over the past few years.
Some people hate it, it makes them feel obligated to stay connected whereas flying was one of the few times where they could turn off their life. They couldn’t be reached. It was an opportunity to read a book, or even to nap during the business day. Cherished personal time.
In some ways inflight internet is one example of the trend towards eliminating the distinctions between work and personal time, although much (though certainly not all!) business travel is done during the work week.
For me, it’s not only made me more productive it’s generally reduced my overall stress level. I used to hate landing after a long flight during the business day to an avalanche of urgent emails requiring immediate attention. Even if none were truly urgent, having 30 or 50 messages that need at least cursory scanning, many needing at least a perfunctory reply, ate up time and caused immediate anxiety. After all, I’d have to go through all of them to know whether any crises happened.
As Internet in the Sky Has Proliferated, It’s Become Increasing Frustrating
I avoid flying most planes without internet. It’s more prevalent inside the US than outside, but foreign carrier uptake is increasing and even for international and overwater flying. Singapore Airlines generally has it and so do Emirates and Etihad. So does Lufthansa. I’ll make an exception for first class award tickets on Cathay Pacific, but I’ll try to schedule those 14 hour flights without internet over a weekend to minimize the hit to productivity and the consequence of having my inbox deluged.
Customers do choose carriers with internet over those without it, even if fewer than 10% of passengers are buying it on a given flight (some routes it’s much much higher, like Virgin America San Francisco – Boston or San Francisco – Austin).
At the Phoenix International Aviation Symposium three years ago, both Doug Parker and Scott Kirby spoke. This was right after US Airways announced the installation of inflight internet for their fleet. They didn’t do it because they were going to make money on the internet. Rather, they saw customers booking away from their flights due to the lack of internet. It was about losing ticket sales, rather than generating incremental ancillary revenue.
The problem: the technology to deliver internet to aircraft is complicated and cumbersome. As internet use has grown across airlines, and uptake has grown (though is still relatively small), and as bandwidth requirements per user have grown, the inflight internet experience has become a frustrating one… not least of which for passengers on flights using last generation technology.
Complaints about inflight internet were one of the absurdities pointed out in Louis C.K.’s bit, Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy. And yet the more people use it, the more frustrating is, the less people want to pay for it.
We Need Higher Priced Inflight Internet
Gogo has increased prices. There’s only so much capital they can burn through, so much technological investment they can make that their customers don’t pay for. A decade ago Boeing shut down its own Connexion service after 9 figures of bleeding.
It seems like we need either greater bandwidth or lower prices. And yet lower prices lead to more frustrating experiences.
I was just on an Emirates flight, and Emirates sells internet ‘first 10 megs free’ then $1 for 500 megabytes.
At those prices everyone uses it. And that means performance is so much the worse. I found myself wishing that internet was more expensive on the flight, given that there was no chance bandwidth would be increased on that particular plane on that particular night.
At $30 for a 15 hour flight it would still have been a bargain, fewer people would have chosen to use it, and the fixed available bandwidth would have spread out across fewer passengers.
Of course bandwidth needs to grow, and once it does usage rates can go up rather than pricing. In fact once there’s enough bandwidth so that consumers aren’t trading off with each other for usage, I’d expect it would eventually become free (or rather ‘bundled’ with ticket prices) as it’s becoming at hotels.
For now though, free or near-free isn’t a good thing — and certainly isn’t for those who value it enough to pay more.