Wi-Fi rarely comes cheap for airline passengers. But Delta Air Lines is about to offer one form of connection at no charge: text messages.
The airline said on Wednesday that it would offer free mobile messaging on flights beginning Sunday.
The service is “part of a larger strategy around entertainment and giving our customers something they’ve been asking for,” said Dan Csont, vice president of brand management at Delta.
Other airlines are expected to try to match the offer, but Delta could have an advantage, one aviation analyst said, because it has been investing heavily in equipment to help bolster its connectivity.
“There will undoubtedly be attempts by other carriers to try to match this, but it comes down to whether they have the hardware to do it,” said Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co., an airline consulting firm.
American Airlines and United Airlines did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Delta said that passengers on all flights on planes equipped with Wi-Fi from the broadband provider Gogo — which covers all but 130 small commuter planes out of the airline’s 1,300 aircraft — would be able to send real-time texts through the apps iMessage, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, including international trips. SMS texts sent through cell networks will not be allowed, per regulatory restrictions, the airline said.
Delta trumpeted its service, saying it would be the first global carrier based in the United States to offer onboard texting without charging for online access.
But some airlines already offer more than free texting. Since the beginning of the year, JetBlue has offered free Wi-Fi, which passengers can use to surf the internet, stream content and communicate on chat apps.
Internationally, several carriers have free Wi-Fi arrangements. Emirates passengers on most flights get up to 20 megabytes within two hours and can use the connection to send messages through social networks. Philippine Airlines has a similar limited deal.
And the wireless carrier T-Mobile offers customers free texting via certain apps during Gogo-enabled flights in the United States through airlines including Delta, United, American and Virgin.
The Delta service announced on Wednesday will not support photo or video files. Text messaging will be available as a subset of Delta’s Wi-Fi offerings; customers will still have to pay to browse the web.
But the ability to communicate with the ground free is appealing for many types of jet-setters.
Texting can help coordinate pickup times so that loved ones do not have to loop around the airport waiting out a flight delay. Business travelers — who tend to pay higher fares — can do work en route to a meeting.
Prices for in-flight Wi-Fi access have surged in recent years as demand has grown, so free texting could be a compelling selling point.
An all-day Wi-Fi pass costs $16 plus tax for an American Airlines domestic flight. At Southwest, access costs $8 a day.
“Much as the availability of basic Wi-Fi for purchase was once the basis for choice, now the free messaging could be the deciding factor,” Mann said. “Every airline is always trying to find one more hook.”
Csont said there is “large demand” for Wi-Fi access but declined to say how many passengers pay for access. He said the airline has tested the messaging service and is “very much ready” for Sunday’s launch.
So could midair phone chats be next? Most airlines now forbid internet-based calls and have no plans to change their rules.
“Voice is the third rail — nobody wants to go near it,” Mann said. “Who wants to listen to that inside of a flying tube?”