Four Ways Airlines Could Make In-flight Wi-Fi Free

From a marketing standpoint, money can't buy a more exquisitely perfect demographic than airline passengers: bored, opinionated, and current users of the company's product. Why are airlines passing up the opportunity to collect data or sell products in exchange for free in-flight wifi?

I was fortunate enough to be on two airlines this week offering wifi, Virgin American and Southwest (in beta testing). Instead of paying an absurdly overpriced access fee, I decided to spend time thinking of ways to write this blog. Here are 4 ways to make free wifi profitable.

1). Advertise your own company and services: I didn't start regularly flying Southwest until years later when I learned why they have a super-high customer satisfaction rating: Their democratic management style makes their employees super efficient, they have a great ticket-cancellation policy, and they're nearly always on time. Only then did I learn that I could expect to have a good experience. Southwest could easily make a promotion video showing off why they're super cool, add in a clip of their youtube viral video and, then, direct customers to southwest.com for special in-flight discounts. Only a fraction of customers need to purchase something during their flight to make this strategy profitable.

2). Collect a percentage of shopping revenue. Virgin America currently has a “shopping section,” where customers can purchase a short-list of items (such as in-flight headphones). Why not think bigger? Partner with Paypal, Google checkout, or Visa to offer customer discounts and share a percentage of the revenue from in-flight purchases.

3). Make customers your charity arm: I buy from companies that share my taste in charity. Airlines could replace the wifi access fee with a donation to one of several pre-selected charities. Customers will leave with a positive feeling and a tax-deductible donation, and the airline fills it's charity quota with an exact match of it's customer's desires. To boot, the recipient of the charity could write a thank you letter months later, which essentially amounts to free advertising.

4). Survey customers: its nearly impossible to collect accurate impression after or before customers use a product. Exchanging an in-depth survey during a flight would not only give in-use impressions, a survey could be given at the beginning and end of the flight to see how impressions change.

I'll bet any of my readers that wifi will be free in the near future. And, airline execs will slap their heads in wonderment why they ever consider charging such a valuable demographic,

Gregory Ferenstein

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*Schedule me for a speaking engagement gferenst [at] uci [dot] edu

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11 Comments

  • Philip Bowles

    A well reasoned article to be sure, however, there are three probable causes for charges:

    1. Because they can.
    2. Because they have invested money in the hardware to support WiFi that they will not recoup any other way.
    3. Because there are ongoing costs for them to provide this service.

    No.1 will always be a hurdle - but as you have suggested, not insurmountable.
    No.2 will eventually become zero as with all debts that you make regular payments on.
    No.3 is the interesting one. The Satellite communication company that the airline has chosen to team with and pays a fee to will never reduce their costs. The cost to the airline of lugging the hardware around in the aircraft which may be equivalent to one extra paying passenger or some extra cargo weight, is a drain on their natural revenue resource pool on each and every flight.

    I think it would be a really nice premise, but I doubt in reality it'll ever happen.

  • Joe Harder

    Thank you for the article, as I found the ideas interesting. But with revenue such an issue for airlines, I wonder who will see the upsides and realize this could be a loss-leader for other revenues, charity, whatever. Maybe give free wi-fi, but rent privacy shields, noise-reduction headsets, etc. to enhance the experience (but still less than whatever it costs now to connect)?

  • Joe Harder

    Thank you for the article, as I found the ideas interesting. But with revenue such an issue for airlines, I wonder who will see the upsides and realize this could be a loss-leader for other revenues, charity, whatever. Maybe give free wi-fi, but rent privacy shields, noise-reduction headsets, etc. to enhance the experience (but still less that whatever it costs now to connect)?

  • Robert Bush

    If people can leave inflight comments on their experience, what would that do to customer service? Would a flight attendant act differently knowing you could immediately give feedback? I think there would be a wave of helpfulness and congeniality that would translate into more people choosing that airline as word gets out (in real-time) how great the service is, and that wi-fi is free.

  • Robert Bush

    If people can leave inflight comments on their experience, what would that do to customer service? Would a flight attendant act differently knowing you could immediately give feedback? I think there would be a wave of helpfulness and congeniality that would translate into more people choosing that airline as word gets out (in real-time) how great the service is, and that wi-fi is free.

  • Todd Nettleton

    You bet that airlines--the same people who now charge us to take extra clothes on a trip--will GIVE us free wifi on the plane? Let's be serious...

  • Robert Bush

    If people can leave inflight comments on their experience, what would that do to customer service? Would a flight attendant act differently knowing you could immediately give feedback? I think there would be a wave of helpfulness and congeniality that would translate into more people choosing that airline as word gets out (in real-time) how great the service is, and that wi-fi is free.

  • Lynne d Johnson

    Arun & Phil thanks for pointing out the typo in this post. It's been corrected. We're definitely talking about customers here.

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    Lynne d Johnson
    Senior Editor/Community Director, FastCompany.com

  • David Osedach

    Let us scroll forward 20 years into the future when wifi will be free not only in the air but on the ground as well.

  • Phil Clark

    Is Costumer a new buzzword I dont know? or are we really talking about people who make costumes?