Home Airlines When Did US Carriers Make Inflight Wi-Fi So Expensive?

When Did US Carriers Make Inflight Wi-Fi So Expensive?


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This is a genuine question. I’ve taken very few domestic flights on which I’ve needed to use Wi-Fi in the past few years and I was mostly crossing the Atlantic with British Airways in the year leading up to the pandemic, so when I recently took flights with American and United and saw how much they were both charging for inflight wi-fi I was genuinely taken aback.

In the days when American Airlines was my transatlantic carrier of choice (up to the early part of 2019), an in-flight wi-fi pass for an 11-hour flight between Los Angeles and London was costing me $19.

Cost of long-haul wi-fi on American Airlines in 2019

Back then, the cost of wi-fi on American Airlines made BA’s long-haul wi-fi look a bit expensive (even if BA’s offering was a little more reliable).

Cost of long-haul wi-fi on British Airways

Last month, however, when I took my first transatlantic American Airlines flight in approximately 2 years, it was hard not to notice that the cost of wi-fi had gone up…and gone up significantly!

The American Airlines wi-fi provider is still the same – Panasonic – so I presume flyers are still getting messages like this one when trying to get online:

But the cost of a Flight Pass is now 84% higher than it was back in 2019. 84%!!!

I realize that American had kept the cost of wi-fi at $19 for a significant number of years so it’s only fair that the price should increase at some point, but an increase to $35 is ridiculous. It’s especially ridiculous when your major transatlantic alliance and joint venture partner is offering wi-fi for 25% less.

It’s also not only British Airways that’s offering noticeably cheaper transatlantic wi-fi options than American Airlines right now. Virgin Atlantic is cheaper too.

Not only is Virgin’s wi-fi significantly cheaper than American’s, but the airline also offers its customers more choice (being able to send and receive messages for just $3.95 on an 11-hour flight is a nice option to have).

After having not having had to use wi-fi on a US carrier for a while, I didn’t really know if American had gone rogue with its transatlantic wi-fi pricing or if the price gouging was going on elsewhere too, but I got to find out on a recent flight with United.

It turns out that United’s Full Flight Pass is even more expensive than American’s…and who’s paying $16.99 for 1 hour of wi-fi?!

Worse still, while British Airways will happily let you stream when you pay $26 for a full transatlantic flight, United’s $38 package is as basic as it gets.

Amazingly, it turns out that US airlines aren’t just charging high prices for wi-fi across the Atlantic. Domestic pricing can be ridiculous too.

While on short-haul flights, British Airways, for example, will offer customers a messaging-only service for £1.99/$2.80 or a streaming service for £6.99/$9.90…

…here’s what United was offering me on a 1-hour flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles…

…and here’s what United was charging when Matthew (LiveAndLetsFly) took a 2.5-hour flight between Los Angeles and Denver:

$11 for a 1-hour flight between San Francisco and LA and $20 for a 2.5-hour flight between LA and Dever are both ridiculously expensive…but they’re not quite as ridiculous as charging $16.99 for a single hour!

Access to the internet didn’t cost *this much* when we were all still using dial-up modems and when you had to wait for your parents to get off the phone before you could get at your emails. What’s going on?! When did wi-fi prices on US carriers get this expensive?

I know that the major US airlines sell monthly wi-fi passes which can make economical sense if you’re a road warrior, and I know that there will be people reading this who will be pleased that inflight wi-fi costs so much because it keeps the number of users down and the available bandwidth up (and they don’t care that it’s expensive because they can claim the cost back on expenses), but there has to be some kind of middle ground somewhere where those of us who only fly once or twice a month don’t feel like we have to take out a second mortgage if we want to get online.

When it comes to flying domestically in the US, I realize that there’s not much that an infrequent flyer can do about this (I don’t know what Delta charges for its inflight wi-fi but it’s probably safe to assume that it’s similar to what the other two legacy carriers charge), but now that I know that airlines like BA and Virgin Atlantic are offering inflight wi-fi for noticeably less than the US carriers, this now adds in another point of differentiation for me to consider when I’m booking future transatlantic flights.

Sure, I’m not going to book a noticeably more expensive BA or Virgin Atlantic flight just because their wi-fi costs less than the wi-fi the US carriers offer, but the cost of wi-fi will definitely be a consideration the next time most other things are equal.

Clearly, what I do or don’t do doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to the US carriers, but as more and more people start to want to use wi-fi when they fly across the Pond (I’m referring to regular folk in Economy Class for whom every cost is important, not business people who can write their costs off to expenses), I can see the cost of wi-fi becoming an increasingly important point of differentiation. When that happens, the US carriers will probably need to rethink their pricing or they could be in trouble.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I ended up just buying a wifi subscription for amonth when I have a couple of upcoming flights with the same airlines.

    Unfortunately, it appears that for AA it’s only valid for North American flights. UA is offering a worldwide plan for a small upcharge.

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