Is in-flight Wi-Fi just another way for airlines to profit from bad service?

Like it or not, Wi-Fi is becoming more and more common in the air. And so are the complaints about it.

A recent survey found nearly half the respondents would, for example, be willing to go through airport security twice for Wi-Fi that’s as fast as it is at home.

And many travelers have to juggle the benefits of keeping connected with the aggravation of being connected, especially in a world that now often expects 24/7 availability.

With all the other things that can go wrong with airline travel, Wi-Fi problems can seem trivial, in the grand scheme of things. Until you’re on a flight where the Wi-Fi doesn’t work. And especially when you’ve paid for it. You can pursue an airline for a refund but with the amount of money you’re spending, it’s not worth your time.

Airlines know that. But are they profiting from it?

On a recent United flight to Washington-Dulles, the charge for basic Wi-Fi was $1.99 an hour. High speed Internet, suitable for streaming movies, was double that. Since my work doesn’t take much bandwidth, I went with the less expensive option. And for the first hour or so, my clients didn’t even realize I was gone.

Then came the dreaded “we are currently out of range or experiencing trouble with our connection” message, with a suggestion to refresh the home page to see when the Wi-Fi might be up again. On this flight, that turned out to be never.

Annoying, but it happens.

But then there was the cost aspect. Yes, it’s a trivial amount of money, but who wants to give airlines more money than necessary?

It’s a Catch-22. While you’re captive in an airplane and the Wi-Fi is down, you can’t use the Internet to get a refund, or even to see how to get a refund. The passenger next to me said she just expenses the costs and doesn’t worry about it, and she’d paid for premium service.

Even for those who care, once you’ve landed, and are dealing with all those missed emails, getting a refund for a few dollars isn’t a top priority.

On the other hand, there is the principle of the thing. And after a few days, I took the time to figure out the procedure, which involved providing the flight number, a receipt number, and emailed United through the website. I got a response a couple days later saying they would look into it and respond within 7 to 10 days.

But was this a good use of my time for less than $6? Probably not. It’s likely that many frequent travelers, especially those on expense accounts, don’t bother. Which means someone, the airlines and/or their Internet providers, is racking up a significant amount of money in small increments.

What’s the solution? Eventually inflight Wi-Fi should improve (we hope) so there may at least be less aggravation about not getting what you pay for.

But the system is often both confusing and frustrating. Some airlines have a flat fee, some charge hourly, and some do both.

On my next United flights, one of four hours and one of almost five hours, there were no options to pay by the hour, only flat fees of $9.99 and $8.99 – curiously enough, a higher price on the shorter flight.

And as nearby passengers and I on the last flight discussed, it was the weekend, the plane had had a long tarmac delay, so we would have actually wanted the hourly option to send a few emails and then relax.

There isn’t a consistent price, there aren’t consistent standards, and refunds are complicated.

Airlines could have you just buy one hour of Wi-Fi at a time, and then add more time if needed. But the process isn’t as easy as swiping a card, at least on United. You have to type in a credit card number, security code and billing address.

Or maybe the system could let you authorize up to the entire flight on a per hour basis, and only charge you for the online time the Internet actually worked.

United, amongst other airlines, does give travelers the ability to store credit cards on their profile but the danger there is accidentally paying for not only Internet but other things you don’t want. Especially as bonus miles and insurance, for examples, are now “opt-out” items.

Personally, I’d like to see airlines eventually go to a basic “free” Wi-Fi, model, which would allow emails, with a premium option for high speed. (JetBlue has that temporarily right now.) This wouldn’t solve all refund problems, but would make the system less annoying.

Of course, then the airlines might start including a Wi-Fi fee along with their other mandatory surcharges.

Is in-flight Wi-Fi just another way for airlines to make money from bad service?

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About the Author
I've been in the travel industry since I graduated from Stanford. Back in the days when computers were new, and air travel was comfortable. These days I'm also a travel and comedy writer. All opinions are strictly my own, and not necessarily those of
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