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December 06, 2012

Quantas Nixes In-Flight Wi-Fi Service, Passengers Prefer Sleeping

It is not clear whether this is an omen or a cultural quirk, but Qantas Airlines, the big Australian air carrier has announced that its in-flight Wi-Fi service in March, which gave travelers on Airbus A380s flying to Los Angeles and London in-flight connectivity using their personal Wi-Fi-enabled laptops and other electronic devices, would be no more.

Before you get too worried that other carriers might follow suit because the Australians found some technical problems, rest assured they did not. It turns out the culprit was indifference. The airline revealed that less than five percent of its long-haul passengers had made use of the service. A spokesman noted that, “The commercial trial found that the customer take-up of the Wi-Fi service was extremely low…Most of our A380 services operate at night and so another dampener on demand was the fact people preferred to sleep than surf the web."

Another factor cited was that cost might have played a role in the lack of adoption. The pricing ranged from Aus$12.90 (US$13.45) to Aus$39.90 for various data packages. "Naturally, the costs associated with offering a reliable Internet connection in-flight are significantly higher than on the ground, particularly when you are flying over vast expanses of ocean and can't connect to ground towers," the spokesman added.

A few things are food for thought on this announcement. I speak from experience having flown to and from Australia from New York City, and also have some anecdotal (totally non-scientific) observations.

First, it is hard to imagine on flights that cost over a thousand dollars, and can cost much more depending on how cramped you wish to be, the cost as deterrent argument seems strange. Given time zone shifting and the length of such flights, one would think that business people in particular would be extremely keen on staying connected. I know I would. It takes almost 14 hours to fly from LA to Sydney. This affords plenty of time to both sleep and work even for the most tired amongst us.

Second, as a frequent flyer, the number of folks with personal devices seems to be approaching 100 percent. My experience of what they are doing with those devices is catching up on their game playing, reading eBooks, watching moving and videos they have downloaded and working on PowerPoint presentations. In other words, for the most part connectivity is not a critical factor. What is critical, and a feature I thoroughly enjoy, is having an electrical outlet under my seat so I do not have to run out of battery.

Third, truth be known, my most critical need for communications is when I am waiting for the plane and not when I am on it. The spokesperson indicated that their survey of passengers seem like me, “Right now, our customers are telling us that access to the Internet on the ground is more important than in the air," the spokesman said. They also stated, "We will continue to evaluate demand for Wi-Fi options onboard."

The good news is that if you really need to talk to someone while onboard a Qantas flight you will still be able to send and receive text messages and make telephone calls in-flight on A380s, selected B747s and A330 aircraft.

The abandonment of Wi-Fi by Qantas comes at an interesting point in the history of air travel. As we all know, burning less fuel means saving money and weight is a money burner. It turns out that those back-of-the-seat displays we all love are heavy. In fact, Qantas piloted a program last year that gave people access to tablets so they could watch what they wanted, obviating the need for a back-of-the-seat solution. The challenge is those tablets need to connect to something like Wi-Fi to be really useful, although the bandwidth for watching real-time video is not a terrific experience.

As noted at the top, it is unlikely that the decision to abandon Wi-Fi will be universally adopted by the industry. And, if it turns out that adoption rates prove the business case for other carriers it would not be surprising to see Qantas jump back in. In the meantime, give me free Wi-Fi in the waiting areas. I will be literally and figuratively good to go. Then I can also enjoy a good nap.

Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli

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