Experts say a new partnership between Bell and Air Canada offering Aeroplan members free Wi-Fi messaging on flights will help strengthen the rewards program's brand after being largely grounded during the pandemic.
The telecommunications giant will sponsor inflight Wi-Fi services across the airline's fleet, including Air Canada Rouge and Air Canada Express planes, starting May 15.
All Aeroplan members travelling worldwide on Wi-Fi-equipped airplanes will be able to send and receive messages on apps such as Apple's iMessage, Meta's WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, Rakuten's Viber and Messages by Google over Wi-Fi.
Access will be available on any Wi-Fi capable device, no matter the passenger's mobile carrier, Bell confirmed.
The service will also be available to strategic partner airline loyalty members, including customers of United MileagePlus, Lufthansa Group Miles & More and Emirates Skywards, when their account numbers are associated with an Air Canada booking.
"This could mark the beginning of making Aeroplan a stand-alone brand, which it really hasn't been," said Joanne McNeish, a marketing management professor at Toronto Metropolitan University.
"Air Canada is using this partnership and announcement to begin to promote this brand and perhaps give it some strength because it doesn't seem to have any right now."
The companies said the deal will mean additional benefits for Aeroplan customers. That includes offering new promotional rewards and expanding Air Canada's Live TV service on flights to the U.S., starting later this summer.
"We're so proud to join with an iconic brand to deliver real value to customers across the country, and, importantly, to those new to our country," said Air Canada executive vice-president and president of Aeroplan Mark Nasr in a news release.
"This multi-faceted partnership with Bell will allow Air Canada customers to keep in touch with friends, family, or colleagues wherever they travel."
On select flights, Bell will also offer complimentary mobile SIM cards to international travellers arriving in Canada, allowing them to be connected when they walk off an airplane.
"For those new to Canada or visiting, we recognize how important it is to stay connected with family and friends, and the new opportunities being connected can bring," Bell executive vice-president of marketing Claire Gillies said in a news release.
Airline analyst Robert Kokonis said the agreement is a win-win for the Aeroplan brand "both for fully engaged Aeroplan members and perhaps Aeroplan members that aren't as engaged."
He characterized it as a response to Porter Airlines announcing in late 2022 that it would offer free Wi-Fi on its Embraer E195-E2 fleet, despite the fact that Porter's move covers all web browsing rather than only messaging.
"If they started to see perhaps unacceptable erosion of market share to Porter on certain select routes, you could see Air Canada decide to go back and roll out free Wi-Fi, not just text message," said Kokonis, president of AirTrav Inc.
Air Canada reacquired the Aeroplan program from Aimia Inc. in January 2019. The loyalty program has undergone a revamp since the pandemic in an effort to boost membership after Air Canada said members indicated they wanted more opportunities to earn and redeem points in their everyday lives.
Kokonis said demand for the rewards program has since "roared back," thanks in part to agreements with companies such as Uber and Starbucks, which help reach "folks that perhaps maybe don't even have an Aeroplan frequent flyer card."
McNeish cautioned the one caveat to the deal which could hurt Aeroplan is if the inflight connection is poor.
"We all know what slow internet looks like, which means it didn't respond in two seconds," she said.
"These things start out like they're always going to operate perfectly. What's the rollout going to look like?"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2023.
Companies in this story: (TSX:BCE, TSX:AC)
Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version used an incorrect word in a quoted sentence by Joanne McNeish.