Airlines promote new amenity in Wi-Fi offering

NEW YORK: Although Wi-Fi went mainstream long ago on land, it's still in its infancy in the skies, and airline carriers are finding ways to work the new offering into communications.

NEW YORK: Although Wi-Fi went mainstream long ago on land, it's still in its infancy in the skies, and airline carriers are finding ways to work the new offering into communications.

At Virgin America, which began offering Wi-Fi on all US flights this summer, the communications team has focused on the use of in-flight communication. For example, to promote its first Wi-Fi offering, the team streamed a live YouTube show from its plane as it loomed above San Francisco during an event.

Virgin also organized an in-flight video chat from a first class cabin with Oprah Winfrey. Over the holidays, it will offer free in-flight Wi-Fi in partnership with Google.

Patricia Condon, PR and events manager at the airline, estimates that 12-15% of its guests take advantage of the Wi-Fi on a regular basis.

When AirTran began to offer the Gogo service on all of its planes, it used a similar promotional concept, having someone stay on a plane for a number of days and communicate through YouTube, blogs, and various social media platforms. The airline also did an in-flight media tour, and launched a microsite, highlighting videos and tips about how to appropriately use Wi-Fi on a plane.

“We're past the awareness stage at this point,” said Cynthia Tinsley-Douglas, manager of corporate communications at AirTran. “Now we're looking at ways we can make sure that people can use it the way they'd like to.”

She noted that Wi-Fi is important in “corporate messaging” as a way to point to an added amenity. The airline plans to expand the service and to promote it heavily on social media platforms.

Carriers that have not yet enabled all of their planes are focusing communications efforts on notifying consumers about where and when to expect Wi-Fi.

American Airlines, which enabled select planes to offer paid service, recently implemented a downloadable widget that shows which flights have Wi-Fi 24 hours in advance of their departure.

“The bad news is customers expect [Wi-Fi] to be there when they walk out the door. It's an ongoing challenge of continuing to remind them,” said Susie Williams, manager of direct marketing at American Airlines. “That was the purpose, to give them the control as a way to find out, while it takes us time [to implement].”

She said the company put the widget up before the holidays in order to reach frequent travelers. It supported the launch with social media tactics, traditional media relations, and direct marketing.

JetBlue, which is in the process of rolling out its free e-mail and instant messenger offering through LiveTV, said it's too early for a robust communications effort.

“It's still more of a surprise and delight for customers,” said Alison Croyle, manager of communications at JetBlue. “Once we roll it out, we'll look to communicate in various channels.”

However, the airline has incorporated points of difference in its messaging, including its no-fee feature, and the actual Wi-Fi enabled aircraft, tagged BetaBlue and adorned by Yahoo and BlackBerry logos.

While LiveTV doesn't offer full Web browsing capability, JetBlue partnered with a number of Web brands, including Amazon, Yahoo, and AOL, to offer exclusive functionality through their channels.

Partnerships are proving a key factor for airlines, whose industry is more typically focused on a different kind of “engine” than a search engine. Niels Steenstrup, VP of sales and marketing at Aircell, the provider of the dominant Gogo service, worked with Virgin on its Google partnership, and also helped Delta and eBay create another relationship over Thanksgiving.

Paul Skrbec, manager of corporate communications at Delta, explained that the current communications effort, which brings users through an eBay landing page, targets both business and luxury travel consumer. Delta offers Gogo's Wi-Fi on 295 planes.

“The eBay promotion was successful, and there was high usage and testimony that [consumers] were excited it was free,” said Steenstrup. “Once they try it once, repeat usage is very high.”

Aircell works with PR agency RF Binder to help secure these kinds of partnerships and generate interest in the service via its airport reps and blogger outreach.

The Aircell team is also looking to the novelty of in-flight online communication to promote Gogo and the airlines with which it works. For example, it's leveraging consumers' in-flight Twitter and Facebook usage in its blogger outreach and social media posts. For example, Steenstrup explained that recently a man with a large Twitter following and a journalist were on two planes flying in different directions, and the one farther away was sending updates when he experienced turbulence. Steenstrup's team then helped to seed the news.

“It's encouraging people with large Twitter followings to use the service, and talk about it from the air,” he said. “I think our main message is around awareness and then breaking the traditional mindset of travel.”

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