The tram wizzes by at Detroit's airport. Photo from DTW.

The tram wizzes by at Detroit's airport. Photo from DTW.

Recently I was hanging out at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) waiting for a flight back home and I became annoyed that their airport did not provide free Wi-Fi internet. Oddly the airport did have free wired terminals were folks could check their email. I have become a spoiled traveler. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (my home base) has had free internet for quite some time. The more I travel the more and more I start finding free wireless access at airports. Heck, while waiting for the bus in Austin to go to the airport, I got free Wi-Fi from the city of Austin while standing at my bus stop.

I was voicing my frustration about no free Wi-Fi at AUS via Twitter, when Scott Wintner, who works for Pubic Affairs for Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) and Willow Run Airport (YIP), reached out via Twitter and wanted to share why many airports do not offer free Wi-Fi. He pointed out that Wi-Fi isn’t free and not all airports can afford to give it to passengers without charging. I decided to try and learn more about why more airports don’t have free Wi-Fi and Wintner was more than happy to help out. Here is our talk:

AirlineReporter.com (AR): When did DTW get Wi-Fi?
Scott Wintner (SW): December 2003

AR: Who is it through?
SW:  Concourse Communications (now part of Boingo)

AR: How much does it cost a passenger to get internet?
SW: The rates are established by the provider (Boingo), which currently offers several different rates and packages. You can find all of their rate/package info online at www.boingo.com (there are many to choose among). It’s important to note that, because we use one of the leading global providers, internet purchased for use at DTW also works at hotspots around the country and, with some plans, the world. Plus, customers who already have a Wi-Fi plan with another carrier with which Boingo currently has roaming agreements (such as AT&T, T-Mobile, etc.), you can login to our Wi-Fi using your existing account.

AR: How much does DTW get from each internet purchase?
SW: That’s a complicated question because it’s not as simple as a flat % or sum per transaction. So, the best I can offer you will likely be an annual total… which our finance folks are working on for me now. Please standby…

AR: How much did it cost DTW to set up Wi-Fi?
SW: It didn’t cost the Airport Authority anything because the system was developed by the provider (Boingo). They may be able to provide you with more info about how much a system such as the one in place at DTW costs to set-up and maintain.

AR: Does “free” Wi-Fi even exist?
SW:  There is “no such thing as free Wi-Fi”. A wireless internet infrastructure costs money to develop and maintain… no news there. So, that cost has to be paid by someone. When you stay at a hotel that offers free Wi-Fi, you can bet that the cost of providing the service is merely baked-in to their operating costs and reflected in room rates. Likewise, when you go to a coffee shop, etc., that offers “free Wi-Fi”, the cost of providing that service is assumed in the price you pay for a latte or a bagel there. Of course, a for-profit business could elect to absorb the cost of providing Wi-Fi by paying for it out of profits rather than charging more for their goods/services. I don’t think it’s likely for many businesses to choose that option. But, either way, someone is paying for the cost of providing internet – and generally, it’s the customer.

AR: How do airports differ?
SW: Unlike hotels (which charge for a bed) and coffee shops (which charge for caffeine), airports do not charge their customers to use the airport. Yes, airports do charge for ancillary services such as parking and food/beverage/retail, but those services aren’t the airports primary reason for existing. Airport customers can – and many do – pass through the facility without spending a dime. So, airports can’t just jack-up their nightly rate or their admission fee to cover the costs of providing free Wi-Fi – there are no such fees to raise. Sure, airports could jack-up the price of parking and concessions to cover the cost of Wi-Fi – and many probably do.

AR: Can’t the costs be added to the airline’s fee for flying to an airport?
Raising airline costs at airports creates a whole separate set of effects. At minimum, those added airline costs become reflected in ticket prices. But, in most cases, added airline costs become a huge disincentive for airlines to expand (and in some cases even maintain) air service at that airport… which could lead to fewer options and less competition (read: higher prices). In either case, travelers are ultimately paying the bill.

AR: Why has DTW decided not to provide “free” Wi-Fi?
SW: While finding a way to cover the cost of providing Wi-Fi is one thing, here in Detroit (as at many airports), we take it a step further. Much like parking, food and retail, we approach Wi-Fi as an important revenue stream. It’s not a matter of lining our pockets—we don’t make a profit and haven’t run a surplus in our 100 year history. Meanwhile, we have an incredible airfield here and two beautiful, new terminals that need to be both paid-off and maintained. We get a lot of kudos on our facilities here, and both travelers and airlines appreciate that we rarely have delays to due capacity issues at DTW. But, maintaining J.D. Power & Associates #1 Airport in customer satisfaction takes money. We have to get it from somewhere… and, for the reasons I described above… it’s incumbent upon us – for the good of the community – to generate as much revenue from non-airline rent sources as possible.

AR: How much does Wi-Fi factor into the airport making money?
SW: Wi-Fi is a tiny percentage of our overall revenue, but it’s something – and, it at minimum pays for itself. We hope it can pay us even more, because our customers enjoy the things such revenue is used to pay for (i.e., heat, hot water, clean bathrooms, working escalators, a tram that whisks connecting customers through the mile-long Concourse A in 2 min to make their connection, clear runways, top-notch safety and security systems, etc.)

AR: Why do any airports provide “free” Wi-Fi then?
SW:  To that question, I refer you back to my first key point – it’s not really free. How do some airports justify increasing costs elsewhere to cover providing free Wi-Fi? That you’d have to ask other airports. But, for smaller airports, it’s often for competitive reasons. Lots of people say to me, “I can’t believe you don’t have free Wi-Fi… even the tiny LANSING airport has free Wi-Fi,” – as if to suggest that a smaller airport would be the last to offer such a service. In reality, those smaller airports need to find ways to incentivize travelers to use them (and I say “small” loosely – airports such as OAK are actually not that small, but they are the “little guy” competing aggressively for Bay Area traffic). In their case, airlines aren’t likely to serve their airport unless the airport can show that travelers demand such air service. The economics of the smaller “spoke” airports are just entirely different than hub airports.

AR: Is there anything else travelers should know about DTW?
SW: Despite being a major hub for Delta (their second-largest), and formerly the largest for Northwest, DTW has an impressive roster of other carriers. Since we became an independent Airport Authority in 2002 (which largely affected our economics in terms of a focus on lowering airline costs), we’ve added service by Frontier, AirTran & Air France… and have gained new service on Southwest, Spirit & US Airways. All of those carriers fly routes also and already flown by NW/DL, which means we’ve been able to keep the economics to these carriers good enough to take-on an established hub carrier in their own hub and not only be successful, but GROW. That’s not easy to do – look at CLE today, MSP (until very recently), EWR, etc. We’ve done it with our focus on low-cost operations. We’re not the Nordstrom of airports… we’re more like the Target of airports. People fly out of DTW because they know they’ll get great rates and good service with LOTS of options all under one roof.

Hmm, okay I guess I have to be forgiving of this. How can I say it is alright for airlines to charge fees on things, since I shouldn’t have to pay for what I do not use, when I demand “free” Wi-Fi at the airport. It might be a bit selfish of me to ask others to help pick up with bill for Wi-Fi when not everyone will be using it. Just it can be difficult to pay out $10 for airport Wi-Fi, then another $10 for Wi-Fi on the plane. Of course, no one is forcing me to pay for it.

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: [email protected]

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23 Comments

i agree. Too much to pay for a couple hours of internet. My smartphone is $30 for a month of unlimited data package. What DTW should do is partner with an airline that provides onboard wifi (like Delta) so that when you are sitting at DTW and purchase wifi, the account remains valid for the day and can be carried onto the aircraft. That way, you’re “taking your wifi with you”. You only have to buy it once (on aircraft or in terminal) and then its valid for your day of flying (and at the terminal).

Drew V — I like your idea! Part of the challenge is that inflight Wi-Fi developed well after in-terminal Wi-Fi, so airports are often still under contract with a certain provider of Wi-Fi that is different than the airline’s provider. In fact, to my knowledge, no provider currently offers BOTH on-land and in-air Wi-Fi services, which is a major hurdle to the kind of synergy you propose. That said, our provider, Boingo, is continually expanding its roaming agreements with other Wi-Fi providers round the world — most recently with the addition of T-Mobile HotSpot to the network. I certainly hope Boingo is considering such an agreement with AirCell (and any other emerging providers of in-flight Wi-Fi). But, that’s neither the airport nor the airline’s call.

I could see it as much more valuable if you pay $15 and get the internet at the airport, then on board the plane. A true daily pass.

David

“Meanwhile, we have an incredible airfield here and two beautiful, new terminals that need to be both paid-off and maintained. We get a lot of kudos on our facilities here, and both travelers and airlines appreciate that we rarely have delays to due capacity issues at DTW. But, maintaining J.D. Power & Associates #1 Airport in customer satisfaction takes money.”

My word for this is “claptrap.” I don’t disagree that wireless infrastructure isn’t free for an airport to install and maintain, but I can’t fathom that charging for access is the only way to pay for it. Or are wireless fees being used to help pay for those “beautiful” terminals? Beautiful terminals only go so far to making an airport customer friendly. Methinks those terminals weren’t too beautiful during this week’s storm-related delays, and the lack of complimentary internet service probably had some people going nuts…which is why I always travel with a spare DVD or two.

I’d be interested in hearing from airports that do provide it (LAN, PDX, SEA to name a few), find out why or how they manage to offer it for free. Maybe DTW could learn something.

Chris J — I addressed your questions in my responses. Yes, wireless fees (as with all of our revenues) go to support the cost of operating the airport, including our ability to build and maintain world-class facilities. Throughout this week’s storm, DTW never closed — in fact, we never lost airfield or terminal capacity at all. A large part of that is to the credit of our awesome snow crews, but mainly our ability to operate through a storm is due to the unparalleled infrastructure we have here that provides plenty of capacity throughout a variety of conditions. As travelers saw over the past week, that’s no small thing.

It’s not a question of whether or not we COULD choose to prioritize providing Wi-Fi to travelers at no cost over other ways to spend our limited resources, but we have made the conscious decision that providing the best facilities and creating a cost structure where airlines are incentivized to add as much air service as possible is our top spending priority.

KDEN has free wifi in the United Concourse, I’m not sure about the other concourses. I would not consider DEN as a small airport by any means.

Scott @ DTW

Justin — I never suggested that DEN is a small airport, or that only small airports provide Wi-Fi at no charge. That’s certainly not the case. I was only using the case of small airports providing Wi-Fi at no charge to customers as one example of how/why/when doing so certainly makes sense. I am sure Denver has its own rationale for providing this service, but you’d have to ask them what it is.

By the sample logic why don’t they charge for the electricity and water as well? Heck how about not cooling/warming/filtering the air except for certain sections where you have to pay for it?

I heard the same nonsense from SFO before they finally admitted that the reason why was because they signed a multi-year deal which was exclusive with the provider. When that deal ran out recently they immediately provided no-charge wifi and sent email to everyone proclaiming how wonderful they are.

Hey Roger,

Multi-year deals I am sure are stopping a lot of places, not just airports, from providing free Wi-Fi. Even two years ago, the internet was not nearly as wide-spread as it is now and I think some places ended up with a bad deal.

That being said, it is not a need. Water and electricity are a need for an airport to properly function. If an airport provides everything for free that is needed and charges for everything else, then they can keep landing fees lower and in turn your tickets lower.

David

Ok then. Every airport I have ever been at has included some form of “art” be it sculptures, paintings or other kinds of displays. Those were not free, and even if they were they occupy space that could be used by shops and other forms of revenue generation.

The reality is this airport made a commercial decision and are somehow trying to make it look like it is what passengers want. Hence layers of justification, double speak etc rather than just coming out with the truth.

Maybe art increases the wellbeing of passengers, just as more light than is functionally necessary, air at temperatures that requires more energy that is necessary etc. But wifi also increases wellbeing.

They already have networking such as those wired kiosks already use. Connecting it up to wifi does not cost millions of dollars. Why not make a public auction for it so everyone can see the bids. If the lowest bid is a million dollars then I’ll shut up and believe their reasons. Otherwise I call their excuses nonsense and they know it. (Incidentally a $1 million bid is 2.5 cents per passenger. $100k is .2 cents per passenger. I’d expect the lowest bid to be a few thousand, or roughly equivalent to what it costs them to clean the art each year.)

Scott @ DTW

Roger, you must have missed the part of my response where I stated, “While finding a way to cover the cost of providing Wi-Fi is one thing, here in Detroit (as at many airports), we take it a step further. Much like parking, food and retail, we approach Wi-Fi as an important revenue stream.”

Make no mistake — user-fees for Wi-Fi is a source of revenue for DTW. We have to pay for the heat, electricity and water somehow.

It is an essential customer service offering for an airport to offer free WiFi. Although it is a nice “non airline revenue” option for many airports, but passing those costs to travelers who are already fee ridden, it is just a courtesy to passengers, and guests to offer it.

Scott @ DTW

RichJ, I think you missed the crux of my comments, which is that the costs of running an airport are ALL passed along to the customers who use the airport. WiFi is no different — one way or another, you’re paying for the airport’s cost of operation and maintenance. The money has to come from somewhere, and as I pointed out, airports in the USA do not receive any tax dollars to support their operation and maintenance.

involuntary deadbeat

This price is usually out of line with the service, and its too much to enter your credit card info each time. As for “the highest JD Power rating,” I’d put anyplace way down near the bottom that doesn’t have free internet, or at least cheap and easy to access. I have been using Skype access (uses your existing Skype to access many pay wifi providers worldwide0, but its very expensive.

Some foreign airports its worse (i.e., Singapore)–you can only access by getting a coupon with a user name and password at in info desk. Big hassle, doesn’t always work. Bangkok–coupon like that only works for 15 minutes. I signed up for the pay access by credit card, but they said it sends the user name and password to your email. I couldn’t access the email, the 15 minutes free stopped working, and btw when I got elsewhere, they hadn’t sent me the user name anyway. $8.00 USD RIPOFF!

DTW is (1) of (2) Airports in the US that does not provide free WiFi. This is just plain stupid. The customer is always right. Wifi should be included in the cost of a ticket. That is what the customer wants.

DTW is where I live but I can’t stand for their stupidity. Know your customer.

My statement above is backed up by the following Airport Wifi Map.
http://www.jaunted.com/maps/Airport-WiFi-Map

Flying through Detroit

I’m stunned that there isn’t free wifi, and that the pay wifi,is $8. Sure, it’s only eight bucks, but for the hour or two that I’m here, that’s robbery.

Boingo – I would pay $1 per hour for your service, but since I do have the option to tether to my phone for $1 *PER DAY*, you lose my business.

Flying through Detroit too...

no free wifi at Detroit Airport .This is the first and THE LAST TIME i am taking a flight from/to Detroit Airport.

Having to pay for Wi-Fi surely is a pain, but if that is enough to cause you never to fly out of the airport again — that is a little harsh isn’t it?

David

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