Airplane Wi-Fi's Credibility Problem

A blog about business and economics.
April 10 2013 5:10 PM

Airplane Wi-Fi's Credibility Problem

wifi

The D.C.-San Francisco flight I took this morning didn't have Wi-Fi on it, but the D.C.-Houston flight I was on last week did. And not just any in-flight Wi-Fi. There was a two-tier pricing structure where you were offered the option of paying more for faster service.

Pondering it, it struck me as an intriguing business problem. After all, having used in-flight Wi-Fi in the past I've often thought that I would in fact be willing to pay more for higher quality service. But when looking at the option to pay more for faster Internet, I hesitated. There's a basic credibility problem. If I pay and the Internet still seems sluggish, I have no real redress. The flight attendants aren't going to fix it. There'd be no real way to prove my experience was sub-par. And obviously even a very good provider is going to be subject to the occasional hiccup while providing access in flight. 

But that dynamic is going to tend to keep the industry stuck in a bad equilibrium. If you can't find a way to credibly offer an upscale service for a higher price, then there's very little incentive to really invest in quality. And if customers' typical in-flight Wi-Fi experience is bad (and that's generally been my experience) it'll tend to sour them on paying in the future.

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So I thought to myself, whatever just pay the money—it's for your work. You'll write an item about it. And so I did. And guess what? It was far and away the fastest and most reliable in-flight Wi-Fi connection I've ever had.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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