Airline Introduces Perk Passengers Actually Want — And It’s Free

JetBlue is responding to the popular sentiment of passengers by introducing free Internet service on aircraft starting in early 2013

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The vast majority of airline passengers would like to be able to use wi-fi when they fly. The vast majority also would like to pay little or nothing whatsoever for using wi-fi when they fly. It looks like travelers will get just what they want aboard JetBlue, starting in early 2013 when the airline rolls out high-speed Internet service on aircraft — service that’ll be free at least at the start.

Coverage of the airline industry is loaded with news of new fees and the occasional insulting outburst from a carrier’s CEO. Airlines get away with this stuff because, thus far, there doesn’t seem to be much downside to piling on fees: it’s become standard practice, and the most fee-crazed carriers are the most profitable of late, as passengers keep coming back to the Spirit Airlines and Ryanairs out there.

There are examples of airlines trying to set themselves apart from the pack by not charging fee upon fee — JetBlue and Southwest still allow at least one checked bag at no charge. But for the most part, we travel in an unbundled, fee-mad world, one in which we can increasingly expect to pay for services that used to be included at no extra charge, like sitting near your family on the plane.

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What might truly set an airline apart, however, would be offering a service that travelers genuinely want — and not charging for it. That’s exactly what JetBlue just announced it will do beginning in 2013, when it introduces “a free basic wi-fi service to start.” The airline will use Ka-band satellite technology that’s “smarter, newer, cheaper and better than anything on the market today for commercial aviation,” and the service will be available on at least some flights next year. The service is expected to be rolled out fleetwide, but it’s unclear at this point what the timeline is.

And yes, it’ll be free for all passengers. Will it stay as a free service? JetBlue won’t make any promises. The airline released a statement to CBS News confirming that wi-fi would remain free at least until the service is installed on 30 planes. After that? A spokesperson said it was too early for JetBlue to decide whether it would charge, and if it would, how much.

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times cited a survey indicating that while interest in wi-fi on planes is high (80% want the option to surf the Web while flying), there are limits to how much travelers are willing to pay for the service. About half said they don’t want to pay at all for wi-fi on planes, and 27% would fork over $5 tops.

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Some airlines currently offer wi-fi starting at $4.95 or $5.95, but only on shorter flights — those lasting 90 minutes or less. It usually costs $10 or more for wi-fi on a longer flight. The in-flight wi-fi service Gogo, which is used aboard flights with Delta, American, AirTran, Virgin America and others, also sells Internet air passes ($39.95 unlimited for a month, for wi-fi on all participating carriers) that are of most interest to frequent fliers like business travelers.

Against all odds in the tough airline business, JetBlue became a hit with travelers in the early 2000s because it did what was then considered “crazy”: It provided 24 channels of live satellite TV on every seat back on the plane, a service that passengers loved and that no competitor in the field then matched. And the service was — and still remains — free for all JetBlue passengers.

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Low prices and good perks, including free TV, free snacks and spacious leather seats, set JetBlue apart from the pack more than a decade ago. Since then, the airline has followed the industry standard in some ways, adding fees for seats with extra legroom, for example. What could set the airline apart today might be again giving travelers something that they like, that would keep them happily busy on the plane — and that they wouldn’t have to pay extra for.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.