Delta Sync Turns Free Wifi Into a Marketing Machine


Delta has really enjoyed making a splash at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas over the years, and this year it returned with a bang. The highlight announcement was free wifi for all*, but there’s a lot more than that under the name Delta Sync. This has the potential to be a huge moneymaker for Delta down the line with promotional partnerships all based on your valuable data.

The basic announcement of free wifi is something that Delta has foreshadowed for years. It has long publicly said that it wanted to make wifi free for everyone, but it needed to have enough bandwidth to support the higher usage that would come with the benefit. That on its face is very true, and apparently it has now reached the point of inflection.

JetBlue showed several years ago that the right provider with the right amount of bandwidth could make free wifi a reality. The Blue Crew has been doing it for a long time, though it’s a lot easier when you’re an airline as small as JetBlue compared to the behemoth that is Delta. But as satellites kept getting launched and Delta started working with Viasat to get that same fast wifi, it started to open the door to this happening. It will now turn on February 1 on much of the mainline domestic fleet. Regional and international are said to follow by the end of 2024.

On the surface, this all sounds like a massive expense for Delta, and that is how the airline wants you to think about it. This is a generous offering from a premium airline, and you should spend your premium dollars to fly said airline. But this is not just about Delta throwing money out there magnanimously. This is about turning free wifi into a moneymaker through partnerships.

The free wifi itself is being sponsored by T-Mobile, so that’s partnership number one. And in case you were wondering if your data is involved in getting T-Mobile interested, it has to be. A Delta spokesperson tells me that people want more personalizing, and so they’re giving it to them. That being said…

Most importantly, with all of our personalization touchpoints we are providing choice. If a customer would like to opt-out of free Wi-Fi and Delta Sync, customers will still have the option to purchase Wi-Fi during their flight.

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to opt out unless they were concerned about what would happen with their data. I’m pleased that Delta is offering the ability to opt out, though I imagine very few will. Nobody reads the terms and conditions, though if anyone does, Delta assures me it will abide by all laws, etc, as you’d expect. Only a few will trade cash for privacy.

Once people opt into free wifi, it will be the base on which the Delta Sync system can help Delta to… keep climbing? Is it still using that tagline? Maybe the new tagline should be”if you want to keep climbing, you have to sync.” Go ahead and use that one, Delta, it’s a freebie.

Back to the point, Delta Sync is a “new platform of digital services and experiences that will personalize the travel journey for our customers,” according to Delta.

Everything in Delta Sync — including access to free wifi itself — requires that you have a SkyMiles account. This is what will really open up the revenue opportunities for Delta since it can tie your behavior throughout your journey to a single user, especially with the Delta Sync Exclusives Hub. So far, here’s what is, or will soon be, under the umbrella:

  • Free wifi access on eligible aircraft, sponsored by T-Mobile
  • Special “curated” offers from American Express
  • Free streaming from Paramount+ (and an offer for new subscribers to sign up)
  • Dining guides and restaurant reservations from Resy
  • “Curated” travel recommendations from Atlas Obscura
  • Free access to New York Times games

Beyond this, Delta Sync will include the ability to order food and beverage directly in the system for First Class passengers and use facial matching to check-in, go through security, and board (currently in Atlanta and Detroit). It is, as Delta says, a way to create a more personalized experience.

The flip side of that, of course, is that it makes it easy for Delta to gather a bunch of data from you and monetize it with its partners. This isn’t a secret. When you go to sign up for a Delta SkyMiles account, the first line of mice type at the bottom says:

By creating a SkyMiles account and when subscribing to email services, you consent to sharing your information with SkyMiles and Promotional Partners in accordance with Delta’s Privacy Policy.

And what does that privacy policy say? (The emphasis below is mine.)

Now, I don’t know what you’ll have to opt into when you go into the Exclusives Hub, so I can’t be sure what exact data they’ll share. But by tying everything into the SkyMiles number, there will be a lot of data on you that they collect. And that data is valuable to marketers. (Note that the privacy policy says you can opt out, but I found it exceedingly difficult to do when I tried, and I’m not even sure I was successful in the end.)

If you’ve ever seen a line snaking out the Delta SkyClub, you know just how powerful the Delta/Amex partnership is for the airline. When the partnership was renewed in 2019, it was expected to reach a $7 billion annual benefit for Delta by the end of this year. That is a low estimate.

While Delta will never recreate something as lucrative as the Amex deal, it doesn’t need to. It can work with all of these brands that are starting off the Delta Sync program and likely make some good money doing it.

So don’t feel bad for Delta having spent all that money to offer free wifi to you. Just getting you to sign up for a SkyMiles account is all the airline needs to start making that money back.

*It’s not really for all, as I explain in the post

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25 comments on “Delta Sync Turns Free Wifi Into a Marketing Machine

    1. A slight correction Julie, it’s out of the seat thinking as we have become the product with our personal data. It’s not much different than social media that has become one giant toxic marketing ploy.

  1. Are you saying that Delta really gets $7 billion PER YEAR from their Amex partnership ? Or is that just since the deal started many years ago ?
    I’m beginning to wonder if Delta should turn themselves into something like a European LCC like Wizzair – charge $0.01 for the flight, and make all the money from the extras. Ensuring that the passenger’s basic fare covers the cost of the fuel seems so old-fashioned… :-)

    1. $7 billion/year is what Delta has publicly/officially told investors that it expects to earn in annual (yes, annual) revenue from the AmEx credit card deal in 2023. That will amount to roughly 15% of Delta’s expected 2023 revenue.

  2. Delta is number 1 and pulling away from the field on many fronts: operationally, financially, marketing, …etc. They are executing their plan while Southwest is executing themselves.

    1. Right. Any idea if they block VPNs on their network? I would need to use one for work, and it’d also address the privacy issue.

    2. The VPN angle is getting tired. It’s necessary for businesses for a number of legal and technical reasons, but the only reason a consumer needs it is to bypass geographic restrictions.

      HTTPS everywhere does a really good job of protecting you in all other cases. The only thing that an internet provider like Delta’s WiFi gets when you’re connecting over HTTPS is what IP address you’re accessing, which can be traced back to the site but your content is secure.

      That is the equivalent of asking someone to dial a telephone number for you. They know which IP you’re accessing, but they have no clue what you talked about.

      1. No argument with your technical description. But a lot of people, like me, *do* need it for work. And I don’t think everybody is as quick as you are to dismiss the privacy implications of a third party knowing which websites you visit.

        1. I dunno, unless you’re already actively blocking ad networks and the like I’m not sure how much privacy you’re giving up by using public WiFi unencrypted. Likewise, if you don’t block ads, I wouldn’t be surprised if your Skymiles number or a related identifier is already included within the advertising profile that multiple companies have on you.

        2. Yeah, for targeting ads, knowing your SkyMiles number (and therefore your name, contact information, home, and travel history) and which web sites you visit and for how long is actually quite a lot of information.

          I agree that you don’t need a VPN to keep the contents of your email and your banking information secure. I always assume that the bits I send over the Internet can be read by everyone whether I’m on public wifi, VPN, or not, so those bits better be encrypted in a way that I trust. https fits that bill. But I also don’t want the privacy invasion of a third party knowing every site I visit. That’s hard to glean (I think) by someone intercepting my traffic once it’s out on the open Internet but easy for a wifi provider, so I always use a VPN when on any public, unencrypted wifi.

          1. I mean they’re still going to target you for ads including your skymiles number unless you block the ad networks or always visit in a private browser.

            This is a spot where an ad blocker protects your privacy much more than a VPN.

  3. The beauty of what Delta is proposing to do is seen in comparing what other airlines have done with hi-speed Wifi or that there are a handful of airlines that can even deploy hi-speed airborne Wifi on a majority of their planes.
    B6 hasn’t monetized their Wifi and probably would lose out to every other larger airline if they tried to – but they should have done more if they had the marketing vision.
    AA could rival what DL is doing but they have chosen an ad-based strategy- how most people gain access to “free” Wifi.
    WN and UA are years away from having the number of aircraft with hi-speed Wifi necessary to compete.
    Given that DL and UA are quickly going after each other in a race for global competitiveness, being able to offer free Wifi even in 2 years across their entire international fleet is something no other large global airline will be capable of doing.
    Then, add in all of the marketing contacts that Delta will be able to sell to its selected group of marketers and DL is in a very unique position to send lots of potential business to Amex, TMobile and other of DL’s “friends”
    and, unlike what some people think in the comments, DL is not going through your internet usage data but rather using your Skymiles number to allow their selected marketers to target you. A VPN can’t stop that because you have to sign in with a real Skymiles number or create one. I would imagine they have processes to validate your information or delete the account if there is bogus data entered.

    and Delta has said that about 1/4 of its current customers have a DL Amex card so they have enormous potential to grow that number, esp. in international markets where Amex wants to expand. Multiply that by the number of other global marketing companies, and DL could easily see hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars per year in revenue – on top of new Amex signups.

    When you factor in that Delta is paying less than any other airline except for WN for fuel because of DL’s refinery and isn’t hedging to get that advantage and is aggressively rebuilding and expanding its fleet and network, Delta’s investor guidance for 2023 and beyond might be optimistic precisely because of major initiatives like this.

    1. Honestly, I’d rather watch an ad to get my no-cash-out-of-pocket wifi than consent to the full tracking Delta requires. I much prefer to know what I’m paying even if it’s more (one of many reasons I prefer Apple to Google products: I know how much I’m paying Apple, whether it’s in hardware or services/software purchases).

      1. Help us understand where Delta will be “tracking” your activity.
        CF doesn’t say so in the article and neither does anything DL has produced.
        You are consenting to allow them and their marketing partners to market to you based on your Skymiles login info, not your online activity.

        1. Um, Cranky specifically described how Delta will tie your activity through Delta Sync together for advertising partners.

          1. No he didn’t say that Delta will be tracking your internet activity and they won’t
            Feel free to quote the line from his article or Delta’s materials that say they will track your internet activity if you think otherwise

  4. Just Delta showing itself as a group of scumbags who offer inferior service in the air and tries to BS everybody (with the help of paid influences like Tim Dunn) into thinking they’re wonderful.

  5. Delta isn’t going to be able to actively see what you’re browsing on the internet.

    HTTPS everywhere does a really good job of protecting you in all other cases. The only thing that an internet provider like Delta’s WiFi gets when you’re connecting over HTTPS is what IP address you’re accessing, which can be traced back to the site but your content is secure.

    That is the equivalent of asking someone to dial a telephone number for you. They know which IP you’re accessing, but they have no clue what you talked about.

  6. Really appreciate the “entre guillemets” of that excrescent phrase “curated”, which has little to do with airline service in real English. Chef’s kiss!

    Also really glad so many folks like to fly the airlines I avoid. Thank you all.

    It’s not really a high school football game, you know? What would it be like if EVERYBODY wanted to fly the airline you like? I certainly couldn’t afford it.

  7. I don’t really get why people freak out about this kind of stuff. When wifi used to cost $20+ per flight, I will gladly take free wifi even if it means I get some personalized advertising. I ALREADY get personalized advertising!

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