Delta, Virgin America and AirTran are offering free inflight WiFi from Nov. 20 through Jan. 2.
Delta has WiFi on about 540 mainline aircraft with 2,200 daily flights. Virgin America and AirTran were slow on the PR uptake this morning, allowing Delta to get the news jump.
The big question in inflight WiFi remains, will enough people pay for it to make the business viable? To date, much of the use of the industry-leading Aircell Gogo WiFi system has been subsidized by third-party promotions. The Delta, Virgin America and AirTran promotions are in partnerships with Google Chrome.
Airlines and service providers like Aircell have been extremely coy about discussing the actual "take rates," or percentage of passengers on a given flight who opt to pay for WiFi service. In general, the take rate so far is believed to be under 7 percent.
Part of the problem, as I found out over a year ago when I tried out the WiFi on an uncomfortable AirTran flight, is that coach seats are so cramped and planes are so full that it's difficult to get a laptop efficiently open and operating on those jammed-in-your-solar-plexus little tray tables, WiFi-enabled or not.
WiFi providers are banking on the ongoing explosion of WiFi enabled smartphones and other small gizmos to overcome that obstacle. On the other hand, the very demographic that dominates this market is the segment of the population that's most heavily conditioned to expect free WiFi connectivity on the ground.
Recently, Southwest Airlines (which is in the process of taking over AirTran) announced it would set an initial $5 price for use of its own WiFi system, which is being installed on Southwest's fleet of about 550 Boeing 737s. Southwest is using an Aircell competitor, Row 44, a satellite-based technology. Gogo -- by far the leading inflight WiFi provider on numerous airlines -- is based on land antennas. AirTran uses Gogo.
The price for Gogo has ranged to above $12, depending on flight length, but as I said many users so far have opted-in through discounts.
Delta began installing WiFi on its domestic fleet in the fall of 2008 and today operates the largest fleet of WiFi enabled aircraft.