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High bid wins: Airlines offer free access to eBay

The great shopping mall in the sky is getting bigger — by about 300 million items — but you won’t find them in the SkyMall catalog or on the duty-free cart.

Instead, fliers on Delta Air Lines and Virgin America can now use the inflight Wi-Fi provided by Gogo to get free access to eBay, the online auction site, any time they’re above 10,000 feet.

“(We) recently launched our new multimedia platform that offers passengers access to numerous activities, including online shopping, gaming and (movies), said Ash ElDifrawi, Gogo’s chief marketing officer, via e-mail. “Offering access to eBay definitely fits with this mission.”

The service is the latest addition to the growing list of Gogo partnerships that spare airborne Internet users the usual cost of going online, which typically runs $5–$15 per day, depending on the carrier and type of device used. Other retailers offering free inflight access on select airlines include Amazon, Zappos and StubHub, the event ticket-seller.

“Broadening the retail offer is good for everyone in the ‘mall,’” said Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks, which tracks airlines’ ancillary revenues. “Every mall seeks anchor tenants and eBay certainly qualifies as that.”

At the same time, expanding free access to another popular site may be the carrot that entices travelers reluctant to pay for the service to stick around. It’s currently estimated that just 7 to 10 percent of fliers on Wi-Fi-equipped planes take advantage of the service.

“The resistance isn’t necessarily the price; it’s the value proposition,” said Norm Rose, president of Travel Tech Consulting. “If the No. 1 thing you want to do is stream movies over Netflix, it can be a miserable experience.”

But according to Rose, the so-called “take rate” will inevitably improve as download speeds increase, more people carry web-enabled devices and providers get more creative with other promotional deals. Whether it’s tiered access — free or discounted Wi-Fi for members of an airline’s loyalty program, for example — or additional sponsorships by other retailers, it’s likely that more people will decide they want to shop ‘til they drop (below 10,000 feet).

“You’ve got a captive audience,” Rose told NBC News. “All the things that people now do online are going to get transferred to the inflight experience.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

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