Innovation

Why in-flight WiFi isn’t part of the airlines war for business custom

Myriam Robin /

Qantas and Virgin Australia are battling it out for the loyalty of Australia’s lucrative business class flight market. But while they scramble to offer tablets pre-loaded with entertainment and ever cheaper fares, both do not offer business travellers any chance to connect to the internet mid-flight.

As businesses store more of their data and business documents in the cloud, this will increasingly limit how much work businesspeople can actually do while travelling.

David Flynn, the editor of Australian Business Travellor, tells LeadingCompany that while in-flight internet is common overseas, it’s more expensive to provide it here.

“It’s more common in America than anywhere else, and with good reason,” he explains. America benefits from a more even population spread, which means the country is dotted with mobile phone base stations capable of carrying WiFi signals up to airplanes. And some of America’s most popular domestic flight-routes, like New York to Los Angeles, criss-cross the country, meaning they’re at least several hours long. This increases the necessity of inflight WiFi for business travellers.

“In Australia the most popular routes are relatively short. There is a question of how much you’re going to do on the internet when your useable internet time is only an hour long,” Flynn says.

While the shortness of most business flights in Australia has decreased the urgency of inflight WiFi, Flynn says he expects it to happen eventually.

“It’s a question of when, not if,” he says.

“But it’s also a question of how much.” The lack of evenly distributed mobile ground stations in Australia means inflight WiFi is most likely to be delivered through satellite technology. Such technology is a lot more expensive, and currently doesn’t deliver fast internet either.

Nonetheless, Flynn is confident that as soon as the technology is there, “we’ll be the first to have it”.

Virgin Australia said in a statement the company continues to look at the best options for its customers, and is making other steps in online connectivity. The airline intends to introduce the second phase of its inflight entertainment plan later this year, which will allow guests to stream inflight entertainment directly to their WiFi enabled devices.

A Qantas spokesperson said the airline recently began trailing in-flight WiFi on its routes to Los Angeles from Sydney and Melbourne, as customer research shows there is demand for internet access on such flights. She added in a statement that Qantas has no plans to introduce voice calls on its flights, as customer research shows many preferred to be left alone when flying.

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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