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Technology, Not Economics, Is Keeping Delta Air Lines From Offering Free Wi-Fi

Brian Sumers, Skift
Technology, Not Economics, Is Keeping Delta Air Lines From Offering Free Wi-Fi
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Delta Air Lines remains committed to offering free Wi-Fi in the not-too-distant future, but a two-week test on 55 domestic daily flights in May showed Gogo’s system is not ready for so much increased usage, CEO Ed Bastian said Wednesday at the Skift Global Forum in New York City.

“There were some successes,” Bastian said.  “There were some things we found out that we hoped not to find out, in terms of the work needed until we can go for free.”

So far in the United States, only JetBlue Airways offers free Wi-Fi, but it’s a fraction of the size of Delta and only flies within the Americas. JetBlue also uses a system from ViaSat, rather than Gogo.

Bastian has said for a year he expects Delta to offer free Internet as soon as Gogo makes it practical. But he said while Gogo has “dramatically improved” the performance of its Wi-Fi, the provider cannot make the system work as Delta wants under heavy usage. Airline customers can use a lot of bandwidth when Wi-Fi is free, and JetBlue has said it’s not unusual for each passenger to connect three devices on a cross-country flight.

“We are working hard with Gogo on the technical features,” Bastian told Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor of Skift Airline Weekly. “It is really just a question of technical. It is not economics. I am nervous that if we turned it on, it’s going to cause system outages.”

For now, Bastian said, the airline prefers to charge so passengers who buy Wi-Fi will receive a better experience. But he added, free Wi-Fi “is still my goal and we are not backing away from it.”

Trusted Consumer Brand

The drive to offer free Wi-Fi comes as Bastian pushes to position the company as a trusted consumer brand, more like Starbucks or Coca-Cola, than a typical airline. His predecessor, Richard Anderson, also preferred not to compare Delta with other carriers, but preferred to call it a high-quality industrial company, more akin to Federal Express.

“We are broader than a transportation company,” Bastian said.

With the repositioning, Delta is now more focused on offering increased amenities, such as Wi-Fi, in-seat television screens, better-quality snacks, and economy class meals on many transcontinental flights. On long-haul flights, it is also revamping its economy class meal service.

“Eventually we want to be seen as a brand that consumers love because it has such impact on their life, like other great brands that they love and pay a premium for,” Bastian said.

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