Travel G-spots

TRAVEL TIPS: WiFi on Planes

OK. So I said just days ago I do crave for microboredom from time to time.

And here I am typing this blog away on an Amtrak train from Utica – Coordinates: 43°5′48″N –  to Penn New York train station in New York City – the Maple Leaf Route. As to why I’m in Utica in the thick of winter and during the worst winter storm this part of the world have experience in eons … let’s just say it’s a long story and in defense, Utica served as the gateway to Hamilton (Colgate University) and New Berlin – the places I had “business” with.

I have to admit I am thrilled with the prospect of the availability of Wi-Fi on the train. Likewise, though not nearly as thrilled due to the need to swipe one’s credit/ debit card, with the flight on United Airlines form SFO (San Francisco) to EWR (Newark).

Although Wi-Fi at 10,000 feet up in the air is becoming increasingly important and pervasive in our lives, they are not available on all flights, even if the airline you’re traveling with publishes Wi-Fi availability. As of September 2012, only 31% of US domestic flights came equipped with in-flight Wi-Fi, nearly always through GoGo Internet, though there are other options. Back then, and as of now, Delta leads the pack with the most expanded coverage.

However, it’s worth noting that even if your route has Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi connectivity on planes are generally slow and unreliable; i.e. sluggish with constant ‘drop lines’.

Factor in the rather steep price tag (£15/$20 or more – usually per device – for a full flight), the uptake remains low – at only 5-10% of all air travelers actually hooking up – even 4 years after this Wall Street Journal article was written. The statistics improve with business travelers as reported by the 2012 FlightView survey of over 600 US passengers flying for work where, “28 per cent of business travelers are satisfied with in-flight Wi-Fi offered by airlines“.

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So how does the wi-fi work on planes?

US provider GoGo built a network of 3G ground stations all across the US, and planes communicate with these as they fly overhead. It’s a simple system, but bandwidth can be limited to as little as 3.1Mbps. And listen to this, 3.1Mbps is for the entire flight, not per customer! 

GoGo is reported to be rolling out ATG-4 technology, equipping planes with dual modems and directional antennae, which helps boost total bandwidth to a theoretical maximum of 9.8Mbps. However, this is still not very much, and won’t be much help when the plane flies out to sea and leaves the ground station behind.

Here’s a quick review of how wi-fi stacks up with various airlines

Air Canada: A few 319s have GoGo service, but only for travel over the US

AirTran: All planes have GoGo Wi-Fi

American: GoGo available on all 767-200 and 737 aircraft and most MD80 and 757 aircraft

Alaska: GoGo on virtually all flights over the lower 48 states, except for a few of the oldest 737-400s

Delta: Wifi on nearly all domestic flights, including all 319s, 320s, 737-700s, 757-300s, 767-300s, MD88s, MD90s, CRJ 700/900s and ERJ 170/175s, plus some DC9-50s and 757-200s. International flights are promised “soon” but there is no definition of “soon.”

Frontier: GoGo available only on Embraer 190 aircraft.

JetBlue: Doesn’t provide Wi-Fi at all, but promises a dramatically faster service in the near future.

Southwest: Southwest uses Row 44, and just announced that 70% of its flights now have in-flight Wi-Fi, including all of its -700 and -800 aircraft

United: GoGo currently on transcontinental “PS” flights only, and has started rolling out service to its international flights, with just two 747s equipped with satellite Wi-Fi systems as of March 2013, but is adding Wi-Fi to roughly 25 (domestic) planes each month in 2013. United will reportedy “first outfit the narrow body planes — such as the Airbus 319 and 320 — which fly domestically, but will also have more than 50 wide-body, international aircraft outfitted by the end of the year”

US Airways: GoGo on all Airbus 321s, and is expanding to all Embraer 170, 175 and 190 aircraft in 2013

Virgin America: GoGo on all planes, and up to 100 miles into Mexico

What about airlines outside US?

Ed Perkins points out in the Chicago Tribune that all of them use satellite systems, with some of the more advanced airlines being Emirates (Wi-Fi on all 380s), Gulf Air (more than 50% of its planes carry Wi-Fi), Lufthansa (Wi-Fi available on all 330s, some 340s and 747s) and Singapore (“select” planes).

British Airways offers something called handheld link which allows you to use your mobile phone in the air, but it’s not Wi-Fi. As it does not see a commercial opportunity here, British Airways is in no hurry to complete it’s planned 12-month testing.

Check out Hipmunk to check if your flight plans actually offers Wi-Fi services.

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