The first time I ever logged on to in-flight internet, I was on a long-haul holiday flight to San Francisco. My ambitions were modest: send a quick message to a friend, and post the view out of the window on social media. I managed both without hassle, and duly marvelled at the phenomenon of being connected at 30,000 feet. For about the first five minutes…
Barely had I pressed “send” when I was inundated with a barrage of messages and notifications from people who suddenly realised I was still contactable for the next ten hours. “I know you’re flying,” one particularly harrowing message read, “but since you’re online, can you send me a complete draft of the piece you’ve been working on in the next few hours?”
To many business travellers’ great regret, in making in-flight wifi available, airlines have turned air travel from one of the last remaining safe havens from the stresses of the online world into yet another place where you are expected to be constantly accessible. No longer do you have an unassailable excuse for being entirely out of contact for a significant length of time – barring perhaps a trip to the bottom of the ocean, an active volcano or the Moon.
The growing ubiquity of in-flight wifi inevitably means business travellers will soon be expected to be in constant communication throughout a journey. But if this is to be our fate, can we really be expected to pay for the “privilege”?
I don’t believe I’m alone in this. In an online poll of Business Traveller readers,
46 per cent said they only use wifi on a flight if it’s free, while 34 per cent said they don’t use it at all. Just 20 per cent of respondents said they were actually prepared to pay to stay connected.
Internet access at this point may as well be considered alongside food, water and breathable air as essential for human survival. In much the same way travellers expect not to pay a premium for running water and electricity when staying in a hotel room, so too are they now expecting that wifi will be available without a premium.
And this is the case in almost all aspects of their journey. Wifi is increasingly becoming available without charge at airports, on express trains and in the lobbies, executive lounges and rooms of most hotels. Even double-decker buses in Hong Kong allow you to get online without paying a cent.
Now compare that with airlines, where even business class and sometimes first class fares don’t typically include complimentary wifi for the entirety of the flight. A study last year by British satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat showed that 60 per cent of global passengers now see in-flight connectivity as a necessity, not a luxury. Airlines continuing to charge for wifi – not just in the premium cabins – seems an untenable position to me.
Let’s not forget: for airlines, wifi is a practically limitless resource with few logistics; once it has been installed on an aircraft (which can be done in a matter of days) it can be offered to travellers ad infinitum without needing to be replenished. Compare that with meals, which are becoming ever more complex both logistically and conceptually among mainline carriers, but are still (largely) offered without additional cost to
Some airlines are starting to experiment: Delta Air Lines now allows passengers to send messages free of charge via iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger; Turkish Airlines offers complimentary wifi access to its premium passengers; and carriers such as Japan Airlines and ANA have begun offering free wifi to all passengers on domestic flights.
In an interview with Business Traveller last year, Inmarsat Asia-Pacific vice president Otto Gergye likened the growing availability of wifi on board aircraft to fully flat beds. “When it was only one flight, it wasn’t really a purchase decision,” he said. “But when it was on all flights, people would choose to fly on that airline because they were guaranteed a flat bed. It’s kind of the same with wifi.”
Until complimentary wifi becomes the norm, much like the 46 per cent of Business Traveller readers, I’ll be sticking to logging on only in the few instances that it’s available for free. But you can be sure I won’t be posting pictures from the wing any time soon.