ST. LOUIS — When Brian Ward landed in St. Louis to be in a friend's wedding last weekend, he figured he'd use his laptop to look up an email containing his friend's phone number.
But after seeing the price to use wireless Internet at Lambert-St. Louis International — $7.95 — Ward, 31, figured he would wait until he got to his hotel to make the arrangements.
With a crush of holiday travelers at Lambert over the next several days — many of them arriving early at the airport's insistence — keeping connected will be part of the travel experience. But Lambert and many other airports continue to charge for it.
Since the debut of wireless Internet at Lambert about four years ago, airport officials have toyed with the idea of extending it as a freebie. But that would involve installing its own infrastructure and surrendering the $20,000 a month it receives through its contract with Boingo Wireless Inc.
"We have looked at it numerous times," said airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge. "We just don't feel comfortable that it would be the right thing to do right now just in terms of our responsibilities to the air carriers and the airport."
Hamm-Niebruegge said a number of airports charge for Wi-Fi access. Both major New York airports and Newark require payment, as do both of Chicago's commercial airports and a host of others.
But some airports that once charged now extend wireless Internet for free.
"That's become the expectation of travelers," said Alexis Higgins, deputy director for the Tulsa, Okla., Airport Authority.
Tulsa used to charge passengers for wireless Internet, then brought on AT&T, which offered free Wi-Fi to its customers but charged a fee to non-customers. Free wireless remained one of the top five customer service issues identified by travelers, Higgins said, and now it is completely free.
"When we charged (for wireless), we heard it from customers. 'When are you going to offer it for free?'?" Higgins said.
The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport began offering free wireless in February, officials say, and travelers have been pretty receptive.
"Our customers have asked for free Wi-Fi, and we are delighted to make it available to them," the airport's chief executive officer, Candace McGraw, said at the time.
Some Midwestern airports offering free wireless in all or part of their terminals include Kansas City International, Indianapolis International and Eppley Field in Omaha, Neb., according to a review of websites.
Ward, the St. Louis traveler, had begun his day in Frankfurt, Germany, and flew through Detroit's Metro Airport. He said a lot of international airports at least provide a short window of free Internet access.
"I was a little disappointed that neither Detroit nor St. Louis has free Wi-Fi," he said.
Business traveler Mike Starkey of Cottleville said he travels quite a bit, and it doesn't matter much to him whether an airport offers free Wi-Fi or not. He has a Boingo subscription costing $9.95 a month.
"If you travel a lot and this is key to your business," he said, after a flight from Phoenix to St. Louis last week, "then you just take care of it."
Travelers at Lambert can get up to 24 hours of continuous wireless Internet service for $7.95 if they don't have a subscription. Internet service is available in a majority of terminal and concourse areas.
Hamm-Niebruegge said the airport averages about 2,000 users and 3,000 Internet connections a week.