“I don’t know of anywhere else besides in an aeroplane that you can’t get free Wi-Fi.”

Ed Bastian certainly wasn’t wrong when he grumbled about the lack of free Wi-Fi at 35,000 feet. And, as CEO of US behemoth Delta Air Lines, he had some skin in the game. That was five years ago, back in 2018 when he was speaking at the Skift Global Forum in New York City, and in nearly the same breath, Bastian also made a bold promise: “We’re going to make it free.”

After dealing with turbulent oil prices and a pandemic, global airlines are finally embracing the value of offering free internet access on board. With, of course, some Ts & Cs.

The road to high-flying internet connectivity certainly hasn’t been smooth. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the first robust in-flight internet service — Connexion by Boeing — launched way back in April 2000 — but Connexion fizzled out in 2006. “Regrettably, the market for this service has not materialised as had been expected,” lamented Boeing chairman and CEO Jim McNerney at the time. But Boeing couldn’t have foreseen the juggernaut that would hit the market the very next year. 

The age of the iPhone.

As smartphones rapidly became part of everyday life, airlines had to grapple with the very grumble Bastian made: why is internet access free everywhere from the train to the airport, and the hotel on the other side, but not on board?

Happily, that’s rapidly changing as global airlines offer fast, seamless internet at altitude. The question they need to answer though is whether in-flight Wi-Fi is a loss-making carrot to entice customers, or a lucrative revenue stream in an environment of stressed economies, virtual meetings and high fuel prices.

It seems to be an even split, meaning travellers will need to weigh up just how important it is to stay connected at 35,000 feet.

Image: Supplied

Arguably leading the way is US carrier JetBlue, which offers free and unlimited gate-to-gate Wi-Fi at every seat, on every single plane in their 280-strong fleet. And their ‘Fly-Fi’ service is impressive, with speeds of up to 20mbps, and in-flight video streaming from Amazon Prime. Air New Zealand, though smaller, offers similarly free service on all Wi-Fi-enabled aircraft. Look for it on their long-haul Boeing 777s and new Airbus A321neo jets used on the Australia to New Zealand hop.

While free and unlimited Wi-Fi is the dream, it’s not commonplace. The strategy followed by many carriers is to dangle a taste of connectivity in the hope you’ll pay extra for full access. SWISS is the latest to offer free messaging services — the likes of WhatsApp, Telegram and Messenger — on long-haul flights, but you’ll need to pay up to R700 for unrestricted internet access.

Image: Supplied

Emirates, which has invested more than $300m (R5.3bn) into on-board connectivity offers a similar service, but you’ll need to sign up for their Skywards loyalty program. On Qatar Airways Privilege Club members get one hour of free internet access before needing to purchase an access package. The exception for many of these carriers is to passengers in Business and First, who enjoy complimentary internet access. As you’d expect, for tickets often costing north of six figures.

And though it’s five years on, Bastian seems to be true to his word. Members of SkyMiles, Delta’s frequent flyer program, enjoy free access on selected flights. That’s only while Delta is in the process of spending $1bn to retrofit its fleet of 1,200 aircraft. Once that’s completed by end-2024, you can look forward to free access on all aircraft, including the routes between SA and Atlanta.

SWISS Connect WiFi.
SWISS Connect WiFi.
Image: Supplied

Singapore Airlines also upped the ante this year, offering free Wi-Fi across all travel classes, as long as you’re a member of the KrisFlyer program. If not, and you’re in Economy, expect to pay R180 for a Surf Plan to cover your flight from SA to Singapore. Now why would you do that?

And then there are the legacy carriers that take a different view: if passengers want it, make ’em pay.

Lufthansa and British Airways charge up to R500 for a sector from SA to Europe, unless you’re in First, while on Virgin Atlantic it ramps up to R660 for the premium package. Cathay Pacific’s access package will cost an extra R350 to keep you online eastward to Hong Kong.

And in SA skies? While the now-defunct Mango Airlines caused a stir with in-flight Wi-Fi in 2012, domestic airlines have seen sky-high internet as neither a carrot nor a revenue stream. Which means, for now, those few hours hurtling across the Karoo, or down to Durbs, will remain blissfully free of inbound emails. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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