06.15.09

The race to provide in-flight WiFi

Posted in Aeronautical, Services, VSAT at 10:56 am by timfarrar

So how many passengers will be willing to pay for in-flight Wi-Fi service on domestic routes? We’ve always agreed that there is “‘there is zero proof’ that a significant number of passengers are willing to pay for in-flight Wi-Fi service on domestic routes”, as noted in a recent NY Times article?

Certainly airlines are “rushing to install Wi-Fi” but its far from clear that they are “banking on a viable market” since it is rumored that Aircell is funding most if not all of the cost of installations. Instead its clear that airlines see very positive passenger reactions to WiFi availability and want to gain a competitive advantage, especially amongst high revenue business travelers. It appears that airlines are receiving a share of revenues, but unless a substantial part of these payments are being held back until the equipment costs have been covered, then the number of planes needed for Aircell to reach break even may be even higher than the 2000 planes previously indicated.

Current usage largely reflects take-up confined to this business traveler segment, with Virgin America reporting that “20 to 25 percent of its passengers use it on the San Francisco-Boston route, heavily used by business travelers” with an across the board “average of 12 to 15 percent”. That’s slightly better than our experience of 15%-20% take rates (20-25 users) on cross country daytime flights between San Francisco and Washington DC with only a handful of users on short West Coast flights, and its not clear if Virgin America is including night flights in its overall estimate. Although WiFiNetNews suggests “that’s not a bad ROI”, even if 25% of the revenue goes to covering the installation costs it will still take at least a couple of years before these have been covered, and Virgin has by far the best selection of routes (about 50% of flying hours cross country) and airplanes (all with at-seat power) and this ignores the fuel cost of flying the equipment around.

For Delta, it remains far more doubtful whether a fleet-wide installation makes economic sense (although it appears the risk is likely to be borne by Aircell rather than Delta) given the prevalence of short flights in most network carriers’ schedules. Indeed, Aircell is now experimenting with lower prices on these short flights ($5.95 on one recent flight we took from San Diego to San Francisco) in an attempt to stimulate demand. As a result, as the NY Times highlights, incremental revenues from Internet-enabled smartphones may be important to closing the Aircell business plan. However, we remain skeptical as to whether it will be possible to attract substantial usage from the average consumer, unless through consumption of video entertainment, which would likely overload the Aircell network, and its far from clear what is the compelling reason to consume sports or movies, which are already available from the entertainment system built into Virgin America’s planes.

Even if it proves difficult to generate a return on its original investment, Aircell is likely to dominate in-flight communications in North America, simply because its capex is a sunk cost and it is going to be installed on 1000+ commercial aircraft in the next 18 months. We hold out far less hope for VSAT-based services such as Row44, which believe will struggle to gain critical mass and justify their rather more expensive terminal installations. The most interesting airline to focus on will be Southwest, which is currently trialling the Row44 solution. Will it decide to proceed with fleetwide installation of in-flight WiFi, and if so will it decide to switch to the much lower cost AirCell solution?

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