SAN FRANCISCO — Add Facebook to one of the few free in-flight services.
Starting today, seven major airlines are giving away the social network on their Wi-Fi networks all month, just as they would soft drinks and peanuts. It's part of a promotion with Gogo Inflight Internet.
The free Facebook service will be available on North American flights for Virgin America, United Airlines,American Airlines, Delta, AirTran, US Airways andAlaska Airlines. Those who wish to use services other than Facebook must pay extra. Prices range from $4.95 for a short flight to $12.95 for a long one.
Facebook is the most-visited site via Gogo, which serves 1,100 commercial aircraft (or about 3,800 flights a day) and 5,000 private planes.
With more than 2,200 flights daily, Delta operates the largest fleet of Wi-Fi-enabled aircraft in the world.
Virgin, the first airline to launch a Wi-Fi fleet, says up to one-third of its passengers log on to Gogo. One of its more popular routes, San Francisco to Boston, is called the "nerd bird" by Virgin crewmembers.
The top task on Gogo is e-mail, Gogo says.
The promotion is the latest by Gogo to spread word of its service. In December, it teamed with Google to offer free Wi-Fi during the holidays on Virgin, Delta and AirTran flights.
In-flight Wi-Fi access has been available, and promoted, for several years. Yet many consumers either don't use it or remain dubious, thinking "it's too good to be true," says Glenn Fleishman, editor of Wi-Fi Networking News.
Amy Cravens, an analyst at market researcher In-Stat, estimates 7% to 10% of passengers on Wi-Fi-equipped planes use the service.
"There is a lack of familiarity because of little marketing and concern among consumers that the quality does not measure up to the cost," she says.
The promotion is a bold gambit, Fleishman says, to get people interested in a service for free in hopes they'll pay for it later. "It's like one of those (free) HBO or Showtime preview weekends," he says. "They want to get people accustomed to it and hook them."
He says more flights can offer Wi-Fi, and the service could be better, especially for video streaming and video chat.
Only Virgin, with just 25 planes, Delta and AirTran offer full Wi-Fi, Fleishman says.
"This isn't like offering free Wi-Fi in a Starbucks," says Ash ElDifrawi, Gogo's chief marketing officer. "It is an expensive undertaking, and we are sensitive to reasonable pricing. It's like asking Verizon and AT&T to give away 4G" wireless network access.