Wifi on board great, but airlines only scratch surface

Ask anyone who flies often about wireless access on a plane, and you get responses that include words such as ‘spotty.’ ‘expensive,’ and ‘don’t even get me started…’

being someone who has put in a lot of international air miles, I always thought the airline business was one of those last areas to get bitten by the networking virus –social or otherwise. For the past decade we have seen carriers add it (Singapore Airlines did it 6 years ago), take it away, charge exorbitant fees for it, and generally make it difficult. Services such as Gogo Inflight (with a very slim list of partners) did not exactly get us all connected.

But I recently found out that Delta has been quietly rolling out its wi-fi onboard, and it’s got me all fired up. Delta has it on 325 planes –which accounts for “more than 1,200 flights a day”, says its blog.

My interest in wi-fi is more than just being able to connect to the outside world. I am interested in seeing how airlines make it possible for passengers to connect with each other, via a mini –ad-hoc even– social network. I know of someone who’s planning on taking this idea to a whole new level, but by his and other accounts, carriers are still not fired up. (The idea was also floated by Jeff Jarvis a year back, and Rohit Bhargava even before that but airlines are still differentiating around free meals or baggage fees.)

Oddly enough, airlines tend to approach networking with very narrow interests such as making it a branding exercise (getting us to fan them on Facebook), or a throwing it out as a perk (one more thing to pay for). Wi-fi is just one part of the equation.

Trapped in a tube, with limited movement, passengers who are allowed to connect with each other, or at least get to know each other a bit better, would have a direct bearing on brand loyalty, create offline networks, and start interesting conversations.

Think about it: these conversations won’t be limited to casual chit-chat at the gate. Just as how airlines allow us to pick our seat online, or print our boarding pass, they could automatically sign us up with a passenger network that works like LinkedIn, let us pick our business or special interest cluster. We could then contact flight mates prior to boarding, and find people who might be a few pixels away from what we do or plan to accomplish at our destination. Since we share one common element –the city we are flying out of or to- these connections could be valuable and create long-term interests.

Unlike hotels which tend to treat wi-fi as if it were Perrier, airlines can’t afford to miss this one.

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