Free WiFi from Virgin Air — So?

Posted: November 10, 2009 in Current Affairs, Economics
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Under normal conditions I find Virgin Airways to be a pretty sharp group.  They offer an appealing rendition of a commonplace service polished up to make the commodity appealing once again.

Air travel has been beaten down from its once lofty status into something barely recognizable by anyone old enough to recall the golden age that Spielberg and DiCaprio conjured up in “Catch Me If You Can”.  Back then air travel was glamorous, relatively expensive and considered a real luxury.

Richard Branson brought some of that feeling back when he launched domestic service with Virgin America.  To show you how much we’ve lost in the airborne sardine cans operated by United, American, Delta and others, all Virgin had to do was show up with uncrowded departure lounges and room for kneecaps and I for one swooned (I am especially partial to my knee caps).  Food on demand from the little console in front of me is nice but I have this lingering memory of Air France…never mind, I digress.

In any event, this makes it all the more difficult to report on a rare bone-headedness by Virgin.  I got an email today inviting me to fly with them before January 15th and to receive free WiFi service but the offer left me unimpressed.  I like free WiFi but have only used it once since I just started flying with Branson’s company.  That flight took me from San Francisco to Boston and for the price of $12.95 I was able to post three blogs and pronounced myself both productive and satisfied.  No more though.

According to today’s email, Virgin Air sells WiFi access (the regular price) based on the duration of the flight.  The longer you fly the more it costs.  This is interesting on so many levels.  First off, I can buy a flight from Boston to San Francisco or to many other places for about the same money.  The cost seems more related to the number of times the wheels get pulled into the belly of the plane than anything related to distance.  Why is WiFi priced in tiers?

Ok, I know you’re probably saying you know of a great rate from Boston to Detroit or something so I won’t perseverate.  Distance isn’t my main point anyhow.  Take a look at the Virgin fee schedule direct from their web site:

$5.95 for flights less than 1.5 hours and redeyes

$9.95 for flights between 1.5 hours to 3 hours

$12.95 for flights 3 hours or more

The WiFi charge is based on how long you are in the air – and how likely you are to be awake — not some daily or per flight rate.  What I find most irritating about this is that few of us hop on a plane with a fully charged laptop battery and older batteries are less likely to hold a charge for three hours long.  I know there are wonderful new mini-laptops that have nine-hour battery life but the majority of flying laptops don’t.  The price exceeds the probable utility of the service on long flights so it is as if the whole pricing structure changes while you are using the service.  I might be able to use my computer for between two and three hours – on a three-hour flight that will cost me ten bucks on a longer flight it will cost thirteen.  Say what?

So we have a price curve that looks like it rises rather than falls.  Sure they’re charging less for redeyes based on the assumption we’ll sleep but they’re making up for it on the coast-to-coast flights.  Why?  I know what it costs to buy a router and I’d say all the routers in the Branson fleet have been fully paid for already.

As I write this, I am in a hotel room because I am traveling on business.  The hotel makes money charging me $9.95 for the whole day and some hotels have already discounted to nada just to get my head on a pillow.  Could we possibly agree that $9.95 is a fair price for any flight, any time and that $12.95 is just a little bit piggy?

Comments
  1. phaseware says:

    The pricing structure also assumes you will be logged on all three hours. Maybe you only want to log in for 1 and spend the rest of the time reading an actual paper book or something. If they are going to do this, may as well put a coin slot in the seat arm to charge every 15 minutes of log-on time. Or set up a debit system, payable at the end of the flight.

    Something other than pinging you for all the time you are flying, logged in or not.

  2. Nancy says:

    I see where you’re coming from, but you do know that Virgin offers electrical outlets right? Plug that computer right in, and you’ll get your 3+ hours of browsing pleasure.

So, what did you think?

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