Can Ads Help In-Flight Wi-Fi Take Off?

Airlines are pushing hard to bring in-flight Wi-Fi to their customers, but there’s little evidence consumers are willing to spend much to be connected in the air. So perhaps airlines should be looking to advertisers to fund their services. In-flight Wi-Fi faces several challenges, from expensive deployments to a general lack of passenger knowledge. But the biggest hurdle may be the proliferation of ad-funded Wi-Fi services on the ground, which is surely helping create a consumer mindset that wireless Internet access should be free.

Aircell, an Illinois-based startup, now offers its ground-to-air Wi-Fi service on 623 aircraft through partners including American Airlines, Delta, United and Air Canada. The company said its business is nearing 100,000 users per week and is on track to surpass the 2 million-user mark in January.

That sounds impressive, but it’s a tiny fraction of the number of users who fly every month. More than 65 million passengers took to the skies in the U.S. in August alone, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Also, Aircell’s data refers to sessions, not unique users, and the company doesn’t disclose paid sessions vs. free promotional sessions, as Wi-Fi Net News reported last week. recently illustrated how those free promotional offerings are easily available as airlines try to entice passengers to try in-flight Wi-Fi for the first time.

Meanwhile, rival startup Row 44 has installed its system on only five planes — four Southwest Airline jets and one from Alaska Airlines — and, like Aircell, isn’t sharing usage data. Southwest has committed to rolling out the service on its entire fleet of 540 jets early next year. But whether Row 44 can raise the $125 million or so that will be necessary to fill Southwest’s order is far from certain, as notes.

Air travelers are an especially affluent lot, as a JiWire study showed last week, making them an attractive target for Wi-Fi marketing. Perhaps if airlines can’t convince passengers to shell out for access, they can find ad partners to fund their services.