Inside Delta’s big-dollar, multiyear push to bring free in-flight wi-fi to the masses

The company invested nearly $1 billion in the program, a passion project of CEO Ed Bastian.
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Dianna “Mick” McDougall

· 8 min read

On April 29, 2021, 32 people took off from the ground in a Delta Airbus A321 passenger plane, and Joseph Eddy was nervous.

That’s because the flight had a unique goal: See whether Delta’s high-profile bet on free wi-fi held up in the air.

The group would fly from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and back to Atlanta, through some of the nation’s most congested airspace. As Delta’s director of operations and implementation for its in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) program, Eddy led the wi-fi rollout—and that day, he’d been at work since before 6am, gathering with his team at Delta’s secure TechOps facility and making sure all the test passengers had their instructions, as his team cleared the imminent noncommercial flight with experimental tech with air traffic control and dispatch.

It turned out Eddy had good reason to be nervous: The wi-fi on the flights was inconsistent and performed below expectations. Both Delta and Viasat, the airline’s brand-new internet service provider, had work to do.

Nearly two years later, on February 1, 2023, Delta rolled out free wi-fi for SkyMiles members on 540 planes, with a goal of 700+ planes by year’s end—more than half of the company’s fleet of 1,254 aircraft. The wi-fi service had been Delta CEO Ed Bastian's passion project for at least four years, Ranjan Goswami, Delta’s SVP of customer experience design, told us at CES 2023, where the company unveiled the service. The airline has already spent $1 billion on the program and other in-flight entertainment, with the hope that the investment will pay dividends in the form of passenger loyalty.

“It’s significant because Delta is one of the big three airlines,” Yoram Wurmser, principal tech analyst at Insider Intelligence, told us. Later, he added, “[It] raises the stakes for the whole airline industry, particularly American and United, to match it. The goal, really, is because it’s free wi-fi, it’s about customer loyalty.”

But in the age of Covid-19 and a supply-chain crisis, implementing free wi-fi for a Fortune 500 airline proved to be a wild ride. In fact, Eddy said, “2020 was probably the worst time to start a major aircraft modification and technology project.”

Getting off the ground

In August 2019, before the pandemic hit, Delta began seriously considering a new relationship.

The airline had been working for years with Gogo Inflight Internet, which is also the wi-fi provider for United, Alaska Airlines, and Air Canada. But Delta executives decided to start fresh to determine the best partner, sending out a request for proposals to multiple in-flight connectivity companies. They decided on Viasat, and the two companies took things to the lab to simulate a high-demand wi-fi environment.

“One of the big milestones was this lab test,” Don Buchman, VP and general manager for commercial aviation at Viasat, told us, adding, “We actually set up a lab that looked like an aircraft but put it over our live satellite production network.”

The lab tests went well, and next came that first test flight, in spring 2021. While most Delta and Viasat employees chose seats in the front of the plane, according to Buchman, he set himself up in row 30—and tried not to dwell too much on the fact that the future of a lucrative partnership might rest, in part, on the success of that flight.

To test out the service, everyone was categorized into one of four groups, designed from years of research on Delta passenger behavior: older and younger business travelers (checking email, browsing LinkedIn, pulling up Microsoft OneDrive files) and older and younger leisure travelers (streaming shows, watching TikTok or Instagram Reels, web browsing). On the ground, Viasat engineers turned up the dial on that internet activity to simulate 200 passengers.

When the test flight landed at JFK, Buchman and Laney Hind, a program manager on his team, found themselves staring out the window at the tarmac, deep in thought. “That didn’t go so well, did it?” Buchman recalled saying to Hind.

The good news: Upon landing, a Delta employee met them with cupcakes. The better news: Engineers and network operators at Viasat’s network command center communicated via Slack that the network configuration hadn’t been right for this level of use—a relatively simple fix that only took a couple of days.

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“[It’s] like if you had home internet that was set for 100 megabits per second, and then you realized you needed 150, [then] turning it on to 150,” Eddy said.

Eight days after the first test flight, the second one went off without a hitch. That’s when the Delta team told CEO Ed Bastian that things were ready to go, Eddy recalled.

“There we were back again at JFK,” Buchman said, adding, “We had about an hour layover in flights, and I remember Laney walking down with three pizza boxes in her hand. The teams in that first test flight [days before] were pretty tense—we weren’t talking to each other too much, we all knew it was in trouble…[But this time], all the Delta and Viasat teams got together, opened up the pizza, and it was just fun…All the stress had been gone, we succeeded, we did it…It was a much different mood. Everyone was interacting again.”

He added, “We were literally breaking bread together.”

Taking flight

The two teams weren’t out of the woods yet.

In parallel to the software obstacles were the hardware modifications—and, of course, the paperwork.

Viasat and Delta were required to get FAA certification in order to outfit Delta’s planes with Viasat’s hardware—one for each fleet type. It takes about 12 months to receive certification, Eddy told us, so they tackled them on a staggered schedule—and they spent most of 2020 certifying the airframe modification. But even after the FAA’s green light, Delta still needed to take every plane out of service—temporarily—to overhaul the wi-fi system: removing Intelsat’s in-flight internet hardware and installing Viasat’s.

Each aircraft was out of service for three or four days while it underwent its wi-fi makeover, which involved drilling holes in the airplane’s fuselage to run wires and access points through the plane. They started with Delta’s largest fleet—127 Airbus A321 airplanes—and went roughly in order from the largest fleet to the smallest.

Then there were the judgment calls: Compared to 2019, the volume of flights was down 22% in 2021, per the Department of Transportation, largely due to Covid, so it was logistically easier for Delta to take planes out of service for their wi-fi revamps. But from a materials standpoint, it was tougher due to supply-chain challenges.

As flight demand rebounded in 2022, Delta’s IFEC team was running hundreds more plane installs, and the problems essentially switched. It was slightly easier to find materials, but harder to take airplanes out of service.

“It really became a toss-up between: Should we do wi-fi installations or fly aircraft and people?” Eddy recalled.

Delta’s direct IFEC implementation team, which ran the project across satellite tech, aircraft tech, and more, was just about 16 people—although across the larger organization, nearly 400 people have been “committed to nothing else but doing this over the last few years,” Eddy said. For Viasat, around 10–15 staff members directly managed the project, but many teams were involved in the process, like device manufacturing, aircraft engineering, capacity planning, software engineering, quality, tax, finance, and regulatory and compliance.

In April 2021, when the Delta team set the 540-aircraft goal for February 1, 2023, Eddy recalled he was “not 100% confident” that they’d meet the terms. Now, things are different—the company plans to expand the wi-fi program to its entire fleet, including regional and international aircraft, by the end of 2024.

“To be able to hit the day without missing really any of our major milestones, getting to the exact number of aircraft we committed to almost two years ago, is just Herculean,” Eddy told us on the day of the program’s public debut.

“I have been doing aircraft modification projects for almost 15 years in some capacity or another—I have never seen anybody pull something like this off,” he said, adding, “I’ve walked around and gave people hugs and high fives almost all day…With all the chaos and all the consternation and all the constraints, in an industry that was writhing from covid—that’s astounding to me. I don’t know if I’ll ever experience anything quite this amazing for the rest of my career.”

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