In-flight wi-fi: Plenty available, but will fliers pay?

AirTran Airways and Delta Air Lines have made Atlanta the city with the largest concentration of planes equipped with in-flight wi-fi Internet access. But they have started selling the service during one of the most difficult times for a key market -- business travelers.

“You couldn’t pick a worse time to introduce something like this, in the midst of a major recession,” said Forrester Research analyst Henry Harteveldt. “The decline in business travelers reduces a critical audience for this.”

Delta and AirTran’s in-flight wi-fi service provider Aircell has lowered prices for shorter flights and for mobile devices, and is gauging reaction to different prices, particularly in Atlanta. Atlanta is “a very important market for Aircell,” said vice president of sales and marketing Niels Steenstrup. Aircell also aims to sell corporate contracts.

AirTran spokesman Christopher White said the response to the lower prices “has been positive” and AirTran is working with Aircell on other pricing options.

Harteveldt said an average of 10 percent to 15 percent of passengers pay for wi-fi when it is available.

Atlanta-based Delta started rolling out in-flight wi-fi last year, and will eventually have it on its full domestic mainline fleet. AirTran last month finished installing wi-fi on its entire fleet.

When Delta launched its wi-fi, prices were $9.95 on flights three hours or less and $12.95 on longer flights. Aircell later rolled out lower prices of $5.95 for flights up to about 90 minutes long, and $7.95 for those who use only mobile devices on longer flights.

Harteveldt said more people might use the service if the base prices were lowered to $9.95 for longer flights and $7.95 for shorter flights.

“I don’t think that the pricing is quite where it needs to be, especially given the fact that we’re in a recession,” Harteveldt said. “It’s all very early on and we’ll see what works.”