Airline travelers Image by Ryan McGuire via Imcreator.

JetBlue’s on-board Wi-Fi has modernized to give travelers more. Image by Ryan McGuire via Imcreator.

In-flight entertainment has come a long way since its early days with a projector screen and pneumatic headphones. While the last twenty years have seen many airlines invest in expensive in-seat video systems with hundreds if not thousands of entertainment options, some are starting to rethink those investments.  For many carriers, Wi-Fi can serve as an inexpensive and effective entertainment system that travelers love. In some cases, it can even pay for itself.

The initial model for Wi-Fi was straightforward. Either the airline paid to install the system or the provider subsidized it. Passengers paid for the service and either the airline or the provider could try to recoup their costs. This was challenging in the early days when personal devices weren’t as widespread, but as soon as usage began to increase a new problem presented itself: speed suffered.

For ground-based systems like that offered by Gogo in the US, capacity was effectively fixed. There were some enhancements to technology that helped improve speed, but ultimately, the only thing Gogo could do was increase prices to hold down demand.  Today, it’s not uncommon to see Gogo charge $40 for Wi-Fi access on a single flight across the United States.

When Wi-Fi went mainstream, airlines started to realize that they could switch their role in onboard entertainment from being a systems and content provider to being a content provider alone—all while being able to charge passengers. Anything that could replace the enormous cost of buying, installing, and maintaining those in-seat units was a very attractive proposition to airlines feeling the pinch of rising fuel costs and falling ticket prices.

But access to the internet alone wouldn’t be enough. While more and more people brought their own devices onboard and logged on to the Wi-Fi, the system slowed to a crawl. So airlines began installing servers on aircraft that could hold a library of movies, TV shows, and more. This allowed everyone on the airplane to access speedy entertainment via a wireless connection since it never actually touched the internet.

This model showed promise and many airlines rushed to it, particularly on shorter-haul flights. Even though this provided vast entertainment options, the true holy grail was being able to provide fast internet access to everyone on the airplane. The future clearly demands faster satellite options.

JetBlue's new WiFi model is all about partnerships. So far partners include Vice, Wall Street Journal and Amazon.

JetBlue’s new WiFi model is all about partnerships. So far partners include Vice, Wall Street Journal and Amazon. Image via JetBlue.com

The first truly fast Wi-Fi experience for everyone on an airplane came from LiveTV, the former JetBlue subsidiary. JetBlue is now close to having this installed on all its Airbus aircraft, and the results have been stellar.

The system is fast, and that has enabled JetBlue to enter into some productive partnership deals with big name brands. First, it made an agreement with The Wall Street Journal to provide subscriber-level access to those on JetBlue flights. That was just the beginning.

In May, JetBlue announced that Amazon Prime Instant Video would be made available for all Prime members aboard on of its flights.  Normally this would require paying for the higher tier of bandwidth, but Amazon is covering the costs. And just recently, JetBlue struck a deal with Major League Baseball to allow free streaming of MLB.TV on flights, even for those who aren’t paid subscribers.

Amazon Prime members get access to their favourite content in the air.

So why are companies flocking to this opportunity? Airlines provide a captive audience with time to kill. This is the perfect opportunity for Amazon to pick up some new Prime members. It’s also a great way to sign-up more subscribers for MLB.TV and The Wall Street Journal As you can imagine, there is no shortage of companies that would be interested in this kind of arrangement.

While today, JetBlue is the only airline that has enough bandwidth on most of its fleet to allow deals like this to work, other providers will surely follow and Wi-Fi speeds will increase across the board over time. You can expect to see more and more deals like these in the future.

JetBlue originally planned to keep Wi-Fi free for travelers only during the roll-out period.  But these partnerships have been so successful that it will now be free for the foreseeable future. With the right Wi-Fi system, airlines can save installation and maintenance costs on expensive in-flight entertainment libraries, they can earn money on partnerships, and they can provide a fantastic (and free) experience for the customer. This isn’t the right model for every airline on every route, but there’s no question it is extremely attractive. Going forward more and more travelers are likely to leave Wi-Fi on when they switch their phones into airplane mode.