airlines

Passengers want their in-flight Wi-Fi

September 6, 2013: 11:58 AM ET

The modern air traveler would forgo many conventional airline amenities -- including bathroom privileges -- for a stronger, faster in-flight Internet signal.

By Clay Dillow

130906115030-airplane-620xaFORTUNE -- The little things that used to make air travel seem so much more luxurious -- the full-cabin meal service, the free booze, those precious few extra inches of legroom -- have largely disappeared over the last couple of decades as rising fuel prices and general belt-tightening by airlines have eaten into the comforts passengers now consider extras.

But it turns out many modern air travelers are less concerned with physical comforts than with connectivity. In fact, some 90% of airline passengers would give up at least one other onboard convenience for one single in-flight amenity: Wi-Fi.

A survey conducted earlier this summer by technology giant Honeywell's (HON) Aerospace division found that the vast majority of airline passengers think Wi-Fi should be available on every flight. And not just any Wi-Fi -- those surveyed want the kind of stability and speed they've come to know in their homes and offices. The kind of Wi-Fi that supports Skype calls and chat services. The kind of Wi-fi that can stream three back-to-back episodes of Breaking Bad without freezing up.

But what's more interesting is how passengers value their connectivity over other in-flight amenities. For its part, Honeywell -- which, it should be noted, manufactures all kind of jetliner components including the kinds of communication equipment that enables in-flight Wi-Fi -- conducted the survey to demonstrate a real passenger demand for better airborne online access. What it identified in the offing is a culture so concerned with connectivity we're now largely willing to forgo all kinds of other comforts and conveniences -- up to and including a working lavatory.

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While only a third of respondents (the roughly 3,000 passengers were mostly from the U.S. but also included some passengers from London and Singapore) said that Wi-Fi is the No. 1 amenity they need, roughly 80% (and nearly 90% of Americans) said Wi-Fi should always be available during flights. That's especially true on long flights; 54% of Americans, 39% of Brits, and 30% of Singaporeans say they wouldn't be able to go even five hours on a flight without connecting to the web.

But where the numbers get really interesting -- and perhaps where they begin to plumb the collective psyche of a culture that's virtually always plugged in -- is when the survey asks respondents to value Wi-Fi in comparison to other traditional in-flight conveniences.

Nearly nine in 10 passengers would forgo at least one conventional airline amenity for a faster and more stable Wi-Fi connection. For roughly 60% of passengers, having no connection is worse than having a seat that doesn't recline. The same number would rather have access to fast, stable Internet than to be able to sit in their preferred seat. One in three (one in four among Brits) would rather sit next to a crying baby for the duration of a flight than repeatedly lose the Wi-Fi connection. Seven in 10 would be more frustrated by a slow connection than by slow food or beverage service.

But while screaming babies and slow beverage service are minor annoyances, plenty of passengers would subject themselves to actual physical discomfort in exchange for enhanced connectivity in the air. A quarter of passengers would give up a full six inches of legroom in exchange for the best Wi-Fi service possible. Still others -- 13% of Americans, 17% of Brits, and 22% of Singaporeans -- would give up their bathroom privileges. (The survey doesn't specify if these are the same respondents who say they couldn't make it through an unplugged five-hour flight.)

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What are passengers doing with in-flight Wi-Fi when they do have it? Between one quarter and one third use it strictly for professional purposes to ensure their airborne hours remain productive. The rest use it predominantly for personal reasons: sending and receiving personal email, logging into social networks, or streaming movies and TV shows.

But just because passengers aren't working, per se, doesn't mean they're not getting anything done. In an anecdotal portion of the survey, passengers said they've conducted critical last-minute banking, made much-needed medical appointments at their destinations, and responded to important time-sensitive emails via in-flight Wi-Fi.

One survey respondent claims to have planned an entire wedding during a flight. Another used the idle in-flight hours to file for divorce.

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