Will free inflight wi-fi find its wings?

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Today, a little over a decade since the first inflight wi-fi services were launched, more than 80 airlines worldwide now offer wi-fi services to passengers, and nearly half of all air miles traveled each year have the option of inflight wi-fi. Connection in the air has come to be an expected addition to frequent flyers, with 94% of air travelers believing inflight internet enhances their travel experience and 30% checking if wi-fi is available before booking. So, now that inflight connectivity has become something of the norm, what’s next for the industry?

Clues can be found in recent announcements from key players. First, Delta Airlines’ CEO announced aspirations to offer free wi-fi on all Delta flights. This was followed by Norwegian Airlines voicing plans to roll out free wi-fi across 50% of its Dreamliner fleet by 2020. These announcements hint at a shift in the economics of inflight wi-fi towards providing it for free to passengers. At the same time, we have the likes of Star Alliance announcing plans to create a digital services platform that can provide a seamless, consistent journey from “curb to gate” across all Alliance airlines. But this raises the question of how inflight wi-fi can be free to customers and provide a consistent experience, while remaining a valuable asset to airlines?

I believe the answer lies in airlines using inflight connectivity as a way to distinguish themselves from the competition. To see how this can succeed in the air, we can look to examples of it working on the ground. Customers can now walk into their favourite café or hotel and access the wi-fi network using a branded application, where they will also see promotions and marketing for additional products or services. Not only are customers avoiding the frustrating, clunky login screens and confusion over which wi-fi network to choose, they’re also getting a more personalized, seamless experience and being incentivized to spend more money as a result.

We need to remember that inflight wi-fi is still a relatively young technology and historically the main focus has been getting the ‘nuts and bolts’ set up and running as quickly and smoothly as possible. Airlines simply look for wi-fi providers they can work with to provide the fastest, most reliable connection vehicle for their customers. The result of this focus is that many airlines have adopted multiple providers for inflight wi-fi services across their fleet. This means that as a passenger, you might have a completely different experience getting connected on board one flight than on another – even though the airline is the same. On one route, a passenger might see a network name branded as the airline; on the other, it could be branded as a separate wi-fi provider – this is far from the ideal of a consistent and connected customer journey.

Airlines must take lessons from brands on the ground and begin integrating wi-fi into their wider customer engagement strategies. In practice, a customer could access wi-fi through the airline’s own branded app – the same app through which they access the details of their flights and e-tickets, and receive offers for additional paid-for services. By removing the friction of accessing wi-fi through separate systems, airlines will create a seamless connected experience for flyers across the entire fleet. Keeping passengers within their own branded ecosystem is an obvious way for airlines to differentiate from the competition, as well as to serve up additional, complementary services. It will also be an integral component to creating a more consistent, seamless experience across the entire passenger journey.

Putting inflight wi-fi at the heart of an airline’s passenger experience strategy has the double benefit of creating happier, more loyal flyers, as well as creating a means for airlines to monetize each seat. These two factors will become increasingly important as free inflight wi-fi becomes the norm, not the exception. The adoption of free inflight connectivity will also be integral to the future, wider focus of creating a consistent customer experience throughout the entire passenger journey – from the curb, to the gate, and in the air.

Jeff Mabe is senior director of strategic partnerships and global inflight at Pareteum

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