Wi-Fi in the Sky

Carl Weinschenk

Carl Weinschenk spoke with Kelly Davis-Felner, the marketing director for the Wi-Fi Alliance. The alliance late last month released a survey on passenger reaction to Wi-Fi on planes.


Weinschenk: Please describe the research the alliance did.
Davis-Felner: As the industry body for Wi-Fi technology, we from time to time poll Wi-Fi users and get a sense for what trends are out there, what they are using the technology for and how it is continuing to grow and expand. Like everyone else, we've seen an interest in Wi-Fi in flight. Most airlines in the U.S. have rolled out and we thought this may be a good time to see what their experiences are while they are using it.


"... 76 percent of people said they would base their airline choice on the availability of Wi-Fi."

Kelly Davis-Felner
Wi-Fi Alliance

The research was done by Wakefield Research. The survey involved 480 travelers. They were screened on having taken six flights in the last 12 months. Obviously, they had to be 18 years or older. When you dive into some of the responses, it's clear that a pretty significant majority were business travelers.


Weinschenk: What were the most interesting things you found?
Davis-Felner: There were three really juicy tidbits we got out of it. One was that 71 percent of people chose Wi-Fi [as something they want] over meal service in flight. A little over half -- 55 percent -- said they would change their travel plans by one day to get Wi-Fi. When we wrote the question, we never thought we would see that willingness to be that flexible. It's a testament to how helpless people feel without Wi-Fi, how disconnected people feel in flight. The third interesting thing was that 76 percent of people said they would base their airline choice on the availability of Wi-Fi.


Weinschenk: What is the bottom line, from your perspective?
Davis-Felner: The bottom line is that people want Wi-Fi in the sky the same way they want it on earth. We're seeing the same phenomenon in the sky that we've seen during the last 10 years in convention centers, hotels, airports [and elsewhere].


Weinschenk: Was the choice of Wi-Fi over in-flight food service more related to Wi-Fi or the quality of airline food?
Davis-Felner: I'll refrain from commenting on that.


Weinschenk: Can you tell us what people are using Wi-Fi for on planes?
Davis-Felner: We have lots of pretty interesting stats. We split out part of the sample, and carved out 150 responders who had used Wi-Fi in flight and asked what they had used it for. Among those people, 72 percent said to check personal e-mail, 68 percent said to check their work e-mail, 49 percent said they browsed the Web, 35 percent said they streamed video or music, and 22 percent used social networking applications like Facebook.


Weinschenk: What do the folks who hadn't used Wi-Fi want it for?
Davis-Felner: Eighty-seven percent said they would check e-mail, 78 percent said they would check personal e-mail, 63 percent said they would log onto work-related system such as sales and reporting tools.


Weinschenk: What was the most surprising thing that you found?
Davis-Felner: The most surprising was the number of folks who would choose an airline based on the availability of Wi-Fi.


Weinschenk: It's funny, business people used to say that being on a plane was a respite from the demands of work. I guess that perception is changing in this world of near-ubiquitous connectivity.
Davis-Felner: We asked a lot of questions on the stress of traveling and what makes it hard. Almost 20 percent of people said getting behind on work is their biggest frustration.


Weinschenk: Please describe briefly how the connection between the plane and the network below works.
Davis-Felner: What is a little tricky is that there are two ways to do the backhaul for Wi-Fi-enabled airplanes. One is based on land-based cellular towers. The same towers that power your phone provide the backhaul. That method won't work over an ocean, so it won't work on international flights. The other uses a satellite backhaul. Here in the U.S., there are two providers that we are hearing a lot about, Aircell and Row 44. Aircell uses cellular, Row 44 uses satellite backhaul.


Weinschenk: No airlines offer voice calls in the United States. Is this also the case worldwide?
Davis-Felner: There are air carriers that allow cellular calls in the air. Presumably, if that airline allows you to make cellular voice calls it may let you make VoIP calls as well. VoIP calls are blocked in some deployments.


Weinschenk: My understanding is that there is no actual rule against VoIP voice calls in the United States, but that the airlines disallow them on a voluntary basis.
Davis-Felner: That's my understanding too.


Weinschenk: Do you think VoIP on planes is a good idea?
Davis-Felner: I'm a little skeptical for two reasons. I think passengers express strong concern about people using cell phones for voice on planes. An airline doing that would risk a lot of passenger dissatisfaction. Second, the user experience would involve sounds that are colossally unpleasant. I find on my very, very advanced cell phone that I still have cellular delay, even in the office. When you overlay ambient noise on the aircraft, I find it hard to believe it would be a satisfactory user experience. I am not convinced that the demand is there.


Weinschenk: How aggressive are U.S. carriers?
Davis-Felner: It varies by carriers. A number have announced aggressive plans. The one that most quickly comes to mind is Southwest. Within the last month, they announced plans to deploy it fleet-wide in the next year. Southwest is very clear about their desire to attract more business travelers and so this is another thing they can do. It's a fairly easy thing to do from the logistical point of view because their fleet is uniform. They have one kind of plane, the 737.


It is important to also note announcements from American. They are trialing Wi-Fi and I think I read that they have plans to have it on all their MD-80s-their most frequently used domestic aircraft -- within the next year. Delta has trials in place. United has trials in place. Alaska Airlines is pretty close to having Wi-Fi fleet-wide. I think Virgin has it fleet-wide.


Weinschenk: At the end of the day, is this almost solely about business users?
Davis-Felner: I don't think so. We see consumer usage as well. Some of it depends on the pricing model. If airlines keep it as a for-fee service, there will be some point at which people probably become hesitant to pay. Business travelers that need to be connected will be happy to pay that fee. That said, people pay for Wi-Fi hotspots on the ground. There is no reason that changes. It's pretty easy to see that there is quite a bit of demand from people of every stripe.

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