2018 Trend – Free Messaging On Board North American Edition

System Access Diagram

Over the past five years, the biggest North American airlines installed Wi-Fi improve connectivity. Most of them charges for internet access with the exception of JetBlue Airways which provides complimentary access for their passengers. In 2018, a new trend is brewing as airlines expands or introduces free messaging on board. Experience The Skies reveals which North American airlines are participating in this trend currently and where it will head next.

Messaging – What Is it?

Messaging (also called electronic messaging) is the creation, storage, exchange, and management of text, images, voice, telex, fax , e-mail, paging, and Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) over a communications network. Over the past three years, standalone messaging applications took over the lead from traditional telecom managed Short Message Service (SMS) as the most popular method of communication between users around the world.

The most popular standalone messaging applications by daily active users in the world are: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Line and Viber. The first two applications owned by Facebook Inc., are also the most popular in North America. When it comes to hybrid messaging / SMS tools, Apple’s iMessage and Android’s Hangout/Allo are the most popular when factoring their high user bases.

In a Pew Research Center piece on social media engagement, it is noted that more than 55% of smartphone users in its survey uses some form of messaging applications with eMarketer contributing separately that number of minutes/day spent on them vs total mobile app time will increase dramatically through 2018 and beyond.

Mobile Messaging Engagement
Mobile Messaging Engagement Courtesy of eMarketer

The Airline Connection

Airlines progressively look for new ways to engage and provide a better on board customer experience as air traffic picks up. In 2018, this means including free messaging to passengers travelling on selective Wi-Fi equipped flights. All they need to do is to necessary messaging apps downloaded ahead of time, start a Wi-Fi connection once the flight is above a certain threshold (typically 10,000 feet) and start communicating. The only drawback is that messages will only support words and emojis. Sending pictures, videos or other contents may not be supported at start.

As for February 2018, the following North American airlines provide or have announced free messaging (iMessage, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp) to customers travelling on board Wi-Fi equipped flights within the domestic 50 US states and parts of Canada.

While not completely free, Southwest Airlines’ customers can use iMessage, Viber and WhatsApp for US$2 per day.


Future Trends

2018 is the year airlines provide some form of internet access to an extended set of customers. Within a competitive domestic market, access to free messaging on board may sway potential customers in choosing one airline over another if price, route and timing are the same or similar. This competitive advantage is stronger on longer flights where external communication is appreciated or required.

In addition, free messaging may just be the tip of the iceberg in expanding complete internet access to all customers. RouteHappy reported recently that there are 82 airlines worldwide with Wi-Fi equipped aircrafts in their fleet. Unfortunately, less than 10% of them are providing free internet access.

Similar to airports and hotel chains within the last ten years, internet access went from the additional pay per user model  to free when costs were managed. Here are a list of options airlines can consider to reduce costs of service:

Spectrum of Access
Spectrum of Access
  1. Introduce an ads based tier (limited access). It is important for airlines to vet these ads and make them relevant to the travel experience or risk negative feedbacks.
  2. Provide a lower speed/capacity tier for all customers similar to the concept created by hotel chains currently. Additional ancillary revenue can be made by selling one time or subscription access to higher speed / capacity service based on customers needs (full access)
  3. Reward loyal frequent customers and those flying in premium cabins or at a higher fare. The costs can be covered as part of marketing, imbedded cabin service costs or loyalty program (unlimited access).



Airlines do not have to be responsible for the entire cost of providing free messaging or internet access to its customers. They can explore partnership arrangements with relevant parties for subsidies or sponsorships. The following are three examples of partnerships for consideration:

  1. Selective T-Mobile mobile subscribers have access to 1 hr or unlimited use of internet on board Gogo equipped flights. Airlines would not have to pay for data used but would have maintain availability (external partnerships).
  2. An airline such as Delta Air Lines can approach its worldwide coffee supplier, Starbucks, to subsidize costs as the latter  already provides free internet access at many of its coffeehouse worldwide.  In exchange, both can expand their co-brand marketing efforts, the airline can provide unoccupied real estate spaces for Starbucks products and both can enhance customer intelligence (existing partnerships).
  3. Airline alliances such as SkyTeam may also explore purchasing internet bandwidth and capacity on behalf of all its members in bulk to obtain lower pricing per unit (systemwide partnerships).



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