Will Southwest sell Wi-Fi for peanuts?

Southwest has made the decision to install what is, for now, a rather high-tech frill — on-board Wi-Fi. According to swabiz.com, the airlines business travel website, the system is being installed on some flights this year and by 2012, all of Southwest’s 540 aircraft will offer high-speed internet.

Southwest prides itself on being different from the other airlines – above the fray and above the fees. And it’s a strategy that has worked well for the nation’s largest discount carrier.

Which brings up a number of questions. First, how much will this service cost? With an airline that prides itself on low fares, will consumers want to pay a significant fraction of their ticket price for Wi-Ri on-board? At the moment during the test, the airline says the cost will be between $2 and $12 a segment.

Airlines usually subcontract out their Wi-Fi, however, so Southwest may not have final say over the final price.

And with Southwest’s casual seating policy, will there end up being Wi-Fi and no Wi-Fi zones? While the airline claims they will attempt to filter indecent content, computer use can be distracting. (Presumably headphones will be required for any application involving sound.)

Also, since Wi-Fi use is generally restricted to at least ten minutes after departure until a certain time before landing, this really doesn’t give passengers very much time, especially considering that many of Southwest’s flights are under one hour flight time.

While the airline can cut down on some problems simply by making the network unavailable, considering how much trouble it is just to get people to turn off their cellphones I can only imagine how some passengers will react to being told to turn off their machines “when I just got started.”

No doubt Southwest will work all this out. But, for an airline that likes to keep things simple, Wi-Fi could become an interesting complication.

[Photo: Virgin America]