Here’s Why I — and Lots of Other Travelers — Already Hate Delta’s Latest Free Perk

There’s nothing like a long flight to test your tolerance for boredom. Flipping through magazines, zoning out with a B-list movie, or doing a deep dive into a work project are all popular choices. So is paying up for access to the airline’s in-flight Wi-Fi to mindlessly watch a Netflix show.

Delta Air Lines recently announced that it would offer free in-flight Wi-Fi for one specific task: messaging, adding to the list of diversions that restless passengers can try. Unfortunately, the perk really isn’t the great deal that Delta makes it out to be.

Read on to find out why free in-flight Wi-Fi won’t actually improve your flights — and could even make flying worse for everybody (page 5).

Delta’s free Wi-Fi is only for messaging

delta airlines jet
Delta’s Wi-Fi only works for messaging. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It may be obvious, but it bears repeating. Delta’s free Wi-Fi only works for mobile messaging. You can use it with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp, but not any other apps (messaging or otherwise). A long flight might sound like the perfect time to force yourself to try a new app. But you’ll need to remember to download your app before takeoff. (That goes for whoever you want to message, too.)

Next: How you can start using this free perk

But you can’t send somebody a selfie or share a video of the view

They won’t allow photos. | Delta via Facebook

To start sending messages for free on your next flight, you’ll need to connect to Delta’s Wi-Fi, select the “Free Messaging” pass, then hit “Start Messaging.” Then, you can send any messages you want, right? Wrong. As Delta puts it, inexactly enough, “Words and emojis accepted.”

You can’t send photos or videos. And you also can’t send regular SMS messages. (These standard text messages get sent via your phone’s cellular data service, not Delta’s Wi-Fi network, and are prohibited by regulations.) So if you have an Android phone, you won’t be able to use your phone’s built-in messaging app.

Next: Don’t expect the service to be fast.

You’ll probably have to wait for your messages to send

african airplane passenger using smart phone
It might take a while to send. | Michaeljung/iStock/Getty Images

Another pitfall only hinted at by Delta’s official announcement? Speed. Or, more precisely, the lack thereof. Delta’s announcement explains nonchalantly, “On flights where Wi-Fi usage is heavier than normal, sending messages may take slightly longer.”

In-flight Wi-Fi networks are notoriously slow. And their limitations are bound to show up when lots of passengers take advantage of the free messaging pass. That’s all well and good until you’re sleep deprived, sandwiched between two snoring seatmates, and have convinced yourself that your message to your spouse is never actually going to send.

Next: Will passengers start expecting this service more?

Other airlines will follow suit — and change people’s expectations

Your family can get the play by play on your flight. | Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Everybody deals with long flights differently. But for this writer and like-minded travelers, flights offer an increasingly rare commodity: a period of time when nobody expects to be able to contact you. If other airlines follow Delta’s lead — as they are expected to do — everybody’s expectations about your availability in-flight will change.

As Quartz reports, eventually, “high-speed Wi-Fi is going to be the norm — and the expectation that it’s fine to be out of contact once you send a text that says ‘boarded’ will crumble.” You probably don’t mind hearing from your partner or your kids. But do you want your boss or your co-workers to contact you while you’re flying and, even worse, to expect a response?

Next: The free service isn’t that great the more you think about it.

You’ll lose time to read, write, reflect, or just be alone with your thoughts

Woman reading magazine and listening to music on airplane
So much for reflection time | Kasto80/iStock/Getty Images

Quartz brings up another good point about how ubiquitous in-flight Wi-Fi would change things. Productive people currently rely on flights to give them a quiet place to read, write, or reflect, without the alluring distractions of the internet to derail them. Free in-flight Wi-Fi would make it a lot harder to preserve that time.

Of course, the truly self-disciplined will just leave their phones on airplane mode and eschew the Wi-Fi network. As for the rest of us? If we know the network is there — and free — we’re probably going to connect.

Next: What if Delta offered free Wi-Fi for other uses?

Even if Delta offered free Wi-Fi for other uses, it wouldn’t be fast enough

Delta studio perks
Using Wi-Fi for anything but messaging will be arduous. | Delta

Hypothetically, if Delta were to offer free Wi-Fi for tasks other than messaging starting tomorrow, would it move fast enough to keep up? Probably not. That’s because Delta isn’t even close to equipping all of its planes with the fastest Wi-Fi service it offers.

Analysts interviewed by The New York Times note that Delta has invested heavily in connectivity equipment. (The airline says that it offers Wi-Fi on all but 130 small commuter planes out of its 1,300 aircraft.) But Quartz reports that Delta has upgraded its Wi-Fi on just 200 planes. It plans to have high-speed service on 600 within two years. Those odds aren’t exactly in your favor if you want Wi-Fi fast enough to stream Netflix or scroll through Facebook.

Next: Delta is still trying to sell you this, despite what other airlines are doing.

Delta still wants to sell you Wi-Fi access, but other airlines already give it away for free

If you want free Wi-Fi, try JetBlue. | Allison Joyce/Getty Images

The New York Times notes that Delta claims it’s the first global carrier based in the U.S. to offer onboard texting without charging for connectivity. However, other airlines already offer more. JetBlue, for instance, offers free Wi-Fi that passengers can use to browse the internet, stream music or video, and communicate via messaging apps. But when flying Delta, travelers will still need to pay to browse the web.

Plus, prices for in-flight Wi-Fi have surged in recent years. Delta charges $16 for a pass bought prior to boarding. But you can expect to pay $28 if you wait until boarding to decide that you want Wi-Fi access. That’s a pretty steep price for a connection that will frustrate you, make you less productive, and guilt you into answering your boss’s messages instead of enjoying the view.

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