Free In-Flight Wi-Fi Is the Future (Ugh)

The idea of being connected to the internet without cost at 30,000 feet is a draw for many travelers—but not this one.

Free In-Flight Wi-Fi Is the Future (Ugh)

More than 90 percent of Americans use the internet, and a majority want in-flight Wi-Fi.

Photo by Gerrie van der Walt/Unsplash

Not so long ago, a boy named Travis and I glided toward each other on an empty dance floor, wrapped our arms around each other—my hand, his shoulder, his hand, my waist—and waited, the eyes of some 100 onlookers upon us. It was senior prom, and we were the newly minted king and queen. It was awkward, and when the song began, it got even more so. Back when I was a child / Before life removed all the innocence / My father would lift me high we heard. Someone had chosen Luther Vandross’s “Dance With My Father” as the song of the evening. We had no choice but to wrench each other around the dance floor until our sympathetic classmates finally joined. I haven’t thought of that memory in years—until I saw the news that airplane Wi-Fi might soon be free.

Believe it or not, the shoe fits: Like Travis, airlines are doing their best to help me have a good time. But their solution is akin to the Luther Vandross song in that moment: familiar but disappointing, and not exactly a fit for the times—for me, at least.

I’m an anomaly here, I know. Today, 93 percent of Americans use the internet, according to the Pew Research Center, which called internet usage in the country “near ubiquitous.” (The average is slightly lower worldwide, which counts nearly 60 percent of the population as active internet users.) There are 409,185 Wi-Fi hot spots in the United States: 12,038 in New York City, 10,496 in Los Angeles, per last count of the crowdsourced, top app for free Wi-Fi—the aptly named WiFi Map, which highlights more than 100 million free hot spots globally. So: What to do when most of the world is connected by Wi-Fi? Take over the skies.

And airlines are trying . . . sort of. The largest domestic carriers all offer in-flight connectivity for a fee: Delta has rolled out a flat $5 Wi-Fi fee within the past year, regardless of the destination. United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and Southwest Airlines also announced $8 Wi-Fi on most domestic and short-haul international flights. American, for its part, offers Wi-Fi for $10 for the duration of a domestic flight, $35 for international, and $50/month for flights within the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Currently, JetBlue is the only airline within the United States to offer free Wi-Fi on every flight.

The latest news? Southwest recently announced it would offer free Wi-Fi on specific flights from May 4 through June 10 to test its upgraded Wi-Fi hardware, which it installed on 40 of its Boeing 737 planes, per CNBC. Hawaiian Airlines publicized that it would offer free in-flight Wi-Fi as early as 2023, and in early April, American stated it would offer free Wi-Fi as part of a trial period. In exchange for watching an advertisement, travelers will receive up to 30 minutes of free internet (depending on the length of the flight).

Delta ran its own trial in 2019, offering free Wi-Fi on 55 daily domestic flights. Southwest, Delta, and American airlines are all trying to determine the cost-benefit ratio: Free in-flight Wi-Fi is a draw for many travelers, but supporting heavy internet usage from passengers requires certain (currently unsupportable) speeds. It is safe to say change is afoot—and that consumers want it. In an April poll of AFAR readers on Instagram, 57 percent of respondents said they would connect to free in-flight Wi-Fi.

Katherine, you might be whispering to yourself, no one is forcing you to use in-flight Wi-Fi. And while this is true—and while I understand that making Wi-Fi accessible to everyone is more democratic, and not just for the people who can afford to pay for it—I still cherish the complete unreachability that has characterized much of my experience with air travel. I disconnect because I have no other option. I cannot check on my dog, my family, my partner, my work, even though none of them is placing that expectation on me. (Katherine, you might be whispering to yourself, this sounds like an issue of self-control.) I have to surrender to the moment and just be, even if that moment is cramped, too hot, too cold, or kicking the back of my seat.

On an economic level, I understand airlines here: More comfort means more fliers means more money. I am being nostalgic for a time that is time gone by. But in an era of increasing interconnectivity, doesn’t it feel nice to just not? In an era of “overwhelming stress,” doesn’t it feel nice just to be forced to read a book; to watch the clouds glide by? To watch a terrible Hugh Grant movie—or take some time to listen to Luther Vandross? I say yes.

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Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.
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