Delta will spend $1 billion for free WiFi — and a whole lot more

LAS VEGAS — Quality WiFi in the air, free to all, was “the last frontier of connectivity,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian told a standing-room crowd during his CES keynote here on Thursday.

And, he said, it came with quite a price tag: $1 billion.

At that cost, it had to include strategic components, several aspects of which became clear during his talk. 

First, the only string attached to access free WiFi is that one must be a member of Delta’s SkyMiles loyalty program.

If a passenger isn’t a member, signing up will be easily done from seatback screens, Bastian said.

He also noted that part of Delta’s comprehensive approach will be to convert all 150,000 of its current screens into touch-responsive screens.

But beyond the operational improvements, Delta will soon be “an umbrella brand,” Bastian declared. “It’s going to be a collection of digital services, engagement opportunities and experiences for customers.” 

Part of Delta’s overarching approach is to partner with other brands, some of which will be directly connected through the new Delta Sync entertainment platform via free WiFi and others outside the Sync program, such as earning Delta SkyMiles with orders placed through the Starbucks app. Bastian said Delta expected one million new SkyMiles signups during the first year of the Starbucks partnership. They hit that goal in just two weeks.

The free WiFi, he said, will be available on as many WiFi-enabled devices as a passenger may happen to carry, and it’s clearly Delta’s hope that some of that screen time will be devoted to its Sync partners, among them Paramount Plus, American Express, Resy (restaurant recommendations and bookings), Atlas Obscura (destination information) and the New York Times (games).

But he made clear that this is only the beginning. Sync will eventually “have retail, gaming, sports.”

Free WiFi will be available beginning Feb. 1, Bastian said, “for all planes that are capable — about 80% of our U.S. system. And then every week that goes by, there’ll be more and more planes turned on. By the end of next year, we’ll have it on all of our international planes, then on all of our regional planes.”

The Delta Sync platform is expected to arrive in April.

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