IAG, the company which owns a number of airlines, including British Airways and Aer Lingus, has this week confirmed that it will be adding Wi-Fi connectivity to planes operating short haul flights in the next 12 months.
This is not the first time that Wi-Fi has arrived in this industry, as some operators have been offering it for years. However, the promise that more passengers travelling shorter distances will be able to benefit from uninterrupted connectivity while in the air is a potentially compelling one, especially for business users who cannot afford to be left out of the loop for hours at a time.
A total of 341 existing BA jets will be equipped with the technology to provide Wi-Fi to passengers as part of IAG’s wider rollout, with internet access achieved thanks to a satellite uplink. And because the system can be retrofitted to existing planes, there is no need for airlines to invest in entirely new fleets.
Travel expert, Simon Calder, told BBC News that he was yet to be convinced by the appeal of in-flight Wi-Fi, arguing that in some cases it is simply not a consistent enough type of connectivity to be worth using. And while some airlines offer connectivity to passengers free of charge, others include it as a premium purchase on top of the ticket price, making it even less likely to appease users if performance is choppy.
Calder also said that plenty of people relish the ability to get on a plane and know that they are effectively disconnected from the outside world for the duration of the flight. So by adding Wi-Fi to its short haul routes, BA will be giving passengers one less reason to put down their smartphones or laptops and disengage from the digital landscape.
When it comes to whether or not BA will charge its customers for access to in-flight Wi-Fi, an IAG spokesperson said that this decision would need to be taken by the individual airline brands which operate under its umbrella. This means that there is a possibility of free access being granted, especially if some of the airlines are eager to gain the competitive edge in an increasingly tough marketplace.
The question of whether or not the availability of free Wi-Fi is enough to sway passengers to pick a particular airline over another is still up for debate, according to Calder. He claims that decisions over which flight to take are not currently influenced by this factor and are more reliant on things like schedules and ticket price.
He also said that it would make more sense for money to be spent to improve the availability of Wi-Fi at airports themselves, since current infrastructures are often sorely inadequate in one or more areas. From expensive charges for access to poor connection speed and unnecessarily complex login processes, public Wi-Fi hotspots at travel interchanges where users are effectively a captive audience certainly have their issues.
Travellers often have a lot of time to kill at airports, when being able to check emails, browse the web, make VoIP calls and keep up to date with other forms of communication is inherently more useful and convenient than while on a plane, Calder claims. But airlines will need to work collectively to address the problem in airports, while having more power to add Wi-Fi to flights directly under their own control.
Speed and convenience may be at the top of the agenda when discussing improvements which could be made to in-flight Wi-Fi, but there are also concerns over security which need to be considered, especially if networks are in some way linked with other systems within a plane.