Budget carrier Spirit Airlines to start offering in-flight Wi-Fi

Key Points
  • Spirit Airlines would be the first U.S. ultra-low cost carrier to offer Wi-Fi on board.
  • Spirit faces competition from other airlines that already offer the service.
  • The airline says it will start installing Wi-Fi in the fall and finish by mid-2019.
A Spirit Airlines passenger jet lands at LaGuardia Airport in New York, New York.
Robert Alexander | Getty Images

Spirit Airlines is joining the Wi-Fi club.

The ultra-low cost carrier is known for its rock-bottom fares as well as for charging for everything from seat selection to bottled water. On Friday it said Wi-Fi service is expected to be installed on its entire fleet by summer 2019.

Spirit said this would make it the first ultra-low-cost carrier in the Americas to offer onboard Wi-Fi. Fellow ultra-low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines does not offer Wi-Fi, which it includes on its website as one of the reasons it is able to "keep fares so low."

In addition to standing out among low-cost airlines, the move is an attempt to catch up to large full-service airlines that already offer onboard internet service. Competitor JetBlue, which like Spirit, has a robust service to popular warm-weather vacation destinations, offers free Wi-Fi.

Meanwhile, large airlines like American and United have taken a page from the ultra-low-cost airline playbook. Last year, they rolled out basic economy fares: generally the lowest coach-class fare but one that doesn't include perks that used to be free, like advanced seat assignments, upgrade potential and access to overhead bins.

The first time I flew spirit airlines, I had no idea they didn't have wifi so I did not download any music. I was forced to listen to one song I had downloaded over and over again which was Play it Again by Luke Bryan - ironic really.

Spirit is working with Thales Group to bring high-speed Wi-Fi on board. The airline said that by 2021, speeds will be faster when it will be using a new satellite built by Thales Alenia Space.

Travelers will pay an average of $6.50 to use the service on board, but prices could vary based on route and demand, Spirit said.

The airline declined to provide details on the cost of the investment.

The addition of Wi-Fi is part of a broader campaign of the airline to win over consumers, which have complained about the airline's service on social media. A ranking by travel-and-credit card-blog The Points Guy earlier this year ranked Spirit seventh out of 10 U.S. airlines. That was up from dead last a year before, which the blog said was "an improvement but hardly anything to get excited about."

The airline has gotten better at on-time arrivals and decreasing the number of lost bags.

Spirit wants passengers to "give us a shot," Ted Christie, the airline's president, told CNBC.

"Wi-Fi is a component of that," he said. "It's the splashiest way to start."

The airline is also trying to win over shareholders. Spirit shares are down 19 percent so far this year, compared with a nearly 16 decline in JetBlue's share price and a 4 percent increase in Allegiant shares as of Thursday's close. Other major airline stocks are down this year too, however, as investors grapple with the sharp increase in fuel costs.