Airlines and in-flight Wi-Fi providers say usage has been strong and is growing as more travelers sign up for the service and find it on more flights. Virgin America and AirTran Airways have Wi-Fi hotspots installed on all their aircraft and Delta has them on more than 225 of their planes.
But in tests and now in regular service, usage drops off considerably when travelers must pay for the service. Alaska Airlines even tested charging just $1. The result: a lot fewer laptops, BlackBerrys and iPhones signed on. "There's a very substantial decline in passenger usage the minute you start charging for the service,'' said Michael Planey, a consultant specializing in in-flight passenger technologies. "It really begins to invalidate the model on which this service is being built for the next 10 years."
Mr. Planey believes that ultimately Wi-Fi will be free for most fliers, and the best use for airlines will come in having that seat-back connection to customers. A Wi-Fi hotspot can allow airlines to sell tours and tickets in destinations travelers are flying to, and could possibly one day allow in-flight updating of flight connections or baggage problems before landing.