26 January 2010

Why Some Airports Give Away Wi-Fi A few of the big U.S. airports are switching on free Wi-Fi for travelers. How can they afford it?

Last week, the Massachusetts Port Authority Board approved a plan to offer free Wi-Fi to passengers at Boston's Logan International Airport. Seattle's Sea-Tac airport is also a recent convert to the free Wi-Fi model. But both cities are in the minority. Of the top 20 airports in the country (ranked by traffic), only seven offer free Wi-Fi.

So why are some big airports switching to the free Wi-Fi model, while others continue to charge a fee? I spoke with representatives from three airports to find some answers.

Advertising Pays Off

Perry Cooper, public information officer for Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport, explained that November 2009 marked the end of a four-year contract with a company, who had built out the airport's wireless infrastructure. At about the same time, Google agreed to temporarily underwrite the Wi-Fi costs over the holidays, as it did for 54 other airports around the country. When that offer ended on January 15, 2010, Sea-Tac, freed of any contractual obligations, made Wi-Fi free. “We are considered a technology hub, and it only seemed right that the airport should provide free wireless.”

Jacqueline Mayo, public information office at Hopkins Airport in Cleveland, OH, said that they heard the clients very clearly: "We want free Wi-Fi." Mayo said that once their contract for wireless services ended, the airport made Wi-Fi a free service. They are currently working on an advertising model to help pay for the Wi-Fi. A splash screen will advertise coupons for shops and services and value-added offers within the airport.

Earning More Through Sponsorships

Other airports manage free Wi-Fi with a sponsorship-based business model. Samuel Ingalls, the assistant director of aviation, information systems at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nev., says that he looked at a dizzying number of business models and presentations by various service providers. Ingalls realized that because a campus-wide data network was already in place, it would be very inexpensive to implement Wi-Fi throughout McCarran. But he wasn't prepared to pass the cost along to the traveler.

“We felt it would be possible to provide the very best in customer service by not charging for the connectivity, while at the same time fulfilling our fiduciary responsibilities by earning more from sponsorships than we would from direct customer payment,” said Ingalls.

Free Wi-Fi access was launched at McCarran in January 2005, and while the airport has launched many innovative projects, free Wi-Fi has generated the most overwhelming positive user response. “Years later we still receive compliments from our very satisfied customer,” says Ingalls.

Charging the Traveler

In contrast, according to David MagaƱa, public affairs officer at the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, Wi-Fi services will still cost travelers a fee. He said the costs associated with running and maintaining the wireless infrastructure are simply too great for the airport authority. Instead, vendors such as AT&T and T-Mobile will bear the brunt of providing Wi-Fi and will share the income with the airport. To entice potential users, the airport supplements the Wi-Fi with 17 kiosks that provide eight Ethernet cable access ports per kiosk.

Airports are under financial pressures to remain profitable, explained both Ray Diaz, the information technology manager for Miami’s airport, and Jeff Lee, public information officer at St. Louis’s Lambert Field. In the last 18 months, airports have seen reductions in travelers but at the same time have had to increase security. As a result, neither airport is in a position to offer free wireless.

Lee, who has witnessed Lambert Field drop out of the top 20 rankings for airport traffic, said, “We just do not have the money or resources to provide a free network."

The trend for free Wi-Fi is gaining some ground. Soon travelers will have little difficulty finding connectivity at airports in the United States. The question is whether it will be free of charge or not. Travelers do have options, especially if they're not flying through one of the major hubs. Check here to find out whether your next flight departs or arrives from an airport that offers free Wi-Fi.