By Jeffrey Dastin
(Reuters) - United Airlines plans to let travelers redeem frequent-flier miles for Wifi on flights, company officials said.
United, the second-largest U.S. airline by capacity, began testing a web portal on Thursday that lets customers use award miles to access the Internet on their laptops, tablets and smartphones, making it the first U.S. carrier with the feature, a spokesman said.
It hopes to roll out the portal to most U.S. domestic flights by early 2016 and to finish installations on international flights by mid-summer. Regional jets that United contracts for its United Express brand will get the portal later.
The move reflects an ongoing push in the airline industry to treat frequent-flier miles like a currency. Travelers already can redeem miles on U.S. carriers for hotel rooms, theater tickets, goods such as cameras and even identity theft monitoring.
This also marks United's latest move to win over customers since Oscar Munoz took over as chief executive of parent United Continental Holdings Inc in September.
Munoz has solicited feedback from travelers on how to improve the airline, ranked the lowest in customer satisfaction of the largest North American carriers, according to J.D. Power's 2015 ranking.
The team overseeing the sale of extra services such as Wifi is now focused on improving travelers' experience more than maximizing revenue, United's Vice President of eCommerce and Merchandising Scott Wilson said in an interview.
"There is a bias towards promoting that type of thinking. It’s always existed, but maybe where it was more balanced, it’s shifted a little bit," he said.
That doesn't mean free Wifi, however.
Wilson said there has to be some dollar or mileage cost because web speeds could slow if each customer tried to access the Internet. For now, existing contracts prevent United from rolling out the speediest satellite-based Wifi on all flights.
Wilson said the miles needed for Wifi would vary with supply and demand.
United's partner Deutsche Lufthansa AG charges long-haul customers 3,500 miles or 9 euros for an hour of Internet access, according to its website.
Munoz, who is on leave until 2016 after a heart attack, has said implementing the 2010 merger of United and Continental was "rocky for customers and employees."
(Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)