Kelly, the flight attendant, saw me shake my head as I entered my connecting flight to the Bay Area this week. I recognized the plane as an older Southwest 737-300 plane with no wi-fi. An email a few days prior had promised wifi on this flight so I had paid the fee for the day. Now I would need to apply for a refund. To her credit, she remembered and offered me a free beverage when she brought drinks. I did not ask SW for a credit but instead sent in a compliment on Kelly.
The problem is countless customers like me and countless crew like Kelly have had to deal with poor or non-existent wifi on SW flights now for 3 years.
It goes back to a SW decision to go with Row 44 as its service provider while the rest of the industry went with GoGo. As I wrote in my last book, Aircell provides the GoGo service with air to ground service using towers that go back to the last generation of airphones in the 90s.
The constraint is the coverage is only over land (ok, so about 100 miles out to sea). SW was thinking ahead to San Juan and Hawaii flights and went with a air to satellite service provider. Talk about tail wagging the dog. SW still does not have flights to Hawaii, and less than 1% of its flights are to/from San Juan.
For the vast majority of its flights, Row 44 service has been poor or worse. Many customers I know file for refunds after most flights. In recent months, SW has also switched on Dish TV streaming – which makes you wonder even more if relatively steady satellite beamed TV can be watched with a lot more contention (the SW demographic on many flights has more traveling families than business people who are working on flights), why can even slow web service not be counted upon?
Also most SW employees are not like Kelly. They have gotten numb to complaints about wifi. They will just shrug or lie about it. Their customer service keeps saying the service is improving but refuses to provide service level data. These days you can get on-time, baggage loss, age of plane and all kinds of performance data. So why not share wifi performance data? SW has had a chance to do plenty of benchmarking – it acquired AirTran which has continued with GoGo. Soon, as JetBlue and others roll out the ViaSat (also air to satellite) service SW will be forced to benchmark against its much better service.
SW is stuck with a poor decision. It is ignoring the fact that for a growing number of passengers wifi availability is a major decision factor in picking a flight as much as price and convenient time. Even worse, it has underestimated the huge morale impact on its staff for having to continue to defend a poor technology decision.