Please Power On Your Devices

Andrew Sullivan —  May 20 2013 @ 9:18am

The FCC recently proposed expanding in-flight Wi-Fi:

That may sound like good news for faster and more reliable in-flight Wi-Fi—and in a way, it is. But as Joe Sharkey, the New York Times’s veteran business-travel columnist, explains, the decision isn’t about making it easier for you to stay in touch with people on the ground—it’s all about selling you things while you’re up in the air:

The great advances in airplane internet connections are being driven far more by the opportunities that high-speed broadband service presents for airlines themselves to essentially sell more things to the customers, whether the product is in-flight entertainment, food and drink, customised services to elite-status passengers or products at the destination, including hotel packages, sports and concert tickets, restaurant and theatre reservations. On an airplane, you have a captive market, and with sophisticated technology, you can sell to passengers in very personal ways.

If Mr Sharkey is right, in-flight Wi-Fi may be able to finally escape the vicious cycle in which quality improvements rely on more passengers deciding to pay for bad service (and the problem of wider use on any given flight slowing down service on that flight). Instead, Wi-Fi will be the new SkyMall—provided free to passengers so they can buy things they don’t really need.