Cut Through the Confusion Of In-Flight Wi-Fi

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TRAVELERS USED TO struggle to figure out if their flight was going to have Wi-Fi. Now the question is whether they'll have Wi-Fi that works.
 Wi-Fi has grown from a milehigh luxury to an essential amenity for many travelers. Internet connections are more important than food in airline surveys. Alaska Airlines says Wi-Fi reliability is the No. 1 topic of conversation among its most loyal customers. "There are certain things people view they need while in a metal tube, and Wi-Fi is one of them," Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Egan says.
 But with more passengers trying to log in and each using more data, systems that connect to ground antennas get overwhelmed on many flights. Frequent travelers sometimes call Gogo, the leading air-to-ground service, Slowgo or Nogo.
 "Sometimes the service is spotty or I get kicked off. You get frustrated and sometimes just bag it,” says Hemant Pathak, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., who travels frequently to Seattle and other West Coast cities.
 Airlines are rushing to upgrade to satellite-based Wi-Fi systems that can route much larger amounts of data much faster. With satellite-based Wi-Fi, you can log in from gate to gate instead of waiting until the plane climbs above 10,000 feet, and you can stream live TV and movies.
 Not all carriers have it. Some airlines have it on some of their planes, but not others. Some satellite systems have been upgraded to deliver speeds three to four times faster than early satellite systems. Others await an upgrade. And airlines make it difficult to sort the slow from the speedy— there's rarely much information about what Wi-Fi you'll get until you step onboard.
 Gogo has four flavors of Wi-Fi onboard airliners right now—two versions of ground-based systems, plus an original satellite system and a version with a new modem that handles far more data each second, known as 2Ku. The different versions range in speed from receiving 3 megabits per second for the entire plane to 100 Mbps per second. That's a huge difference if you have 30 or 40 passengers all on at the same time.
 When the small-capacity systems get overwhelmed, problems can worsen when flight crews intervene. "Sometimes people mistake degraded service for not working and flight attendants reboot the system,” kicking all users off, says Anand Chari, Gogo's chief technical officer.
 One side benefit to upgrading so many planes: Congestion on the ground-based antenna network will decrease, says John Wade, Gogo's chief operating officer. "Technology has caught up with passenger expectations,” Mr. Wade says.
 Delta flies all four Gogo varieties and is quickly upgrading, sometimes installing satellite equipment on two planes a night at its Detroit hub. All of Delta's long-haul wide-body fleet has satellite service, and 238 of about 700 mainline narrow-body jets have been upgraded to Gogo's satellite service as of Oct. 20.
 Delta is upgrading each aircraft type together so savvy customers will know which flights have better Wi-Fi. By the middle of 2018, Delta says it will have satellite Wi- Fi service on all its domestic flights longer than 1,500 miles.
 Like all U.S. airlines, regional partners will stick with ground-based systems. With fewer passengers onboard, airlines say ground-based works better on smaller planes, and satellite antennas that get installed on top of planes don't fit on narrow regional jets.
 "The reality is not every product will ever be the same when you operate as large a fleet as we do,” says Andrew Wingrove, Delta's managing director of product strategy and customer experience.
 Delta is sending an email before travel to passengers who will get satellite service. Satellite-equipped planes have different signs at airplane doors and flight attendants announce the upgraded service. Delta is working on distinguishing between upgraded Wi-Fi and ground-based when customers book flights, Mr. Wingrove says. Like reliability, pricing can vary significantly with in-flight Wi-Fi.
 Several airlines have recently begun to offer free text messaging in-flight. JetBlue offers free full satellite Wi-Fi with live television. Southwest charges $8 a day for satellite-based internet access, but live TV is free. Other airlines typically charge $12 to $28 a day for internet access. Some offer monthly passes at around $50, or discounts if you pre-purchase Wi- Fi when you book.
 "You can pay a bunch and get very little,” says Ed Pizzarello, a Reston, Va.-based venture capitalist who blogs about frequent-flier programs and travel.
 United was slow to offer Wi-Fi years back because it decided from the start to install satellite service. Now the airline crows that it made the right decision. Besides the increased speed and capacity, satellite service allows connections over most areas on long international flights.
 Yet United ended up with a mix, too. United has 15 Boeing 757s used on transcontinental flights that have ground-based service. So does all of its two-cabin regional jet fleet. And one of United's satellite- service providers offers connections only over the continental U.S. So a 737 flying to Central America or other destinations outside the lower 48 states would lose service for much of the trip. "It's something we are eager to improve,” says Tarek Abdel-Halim, United's managing director of onboard products.


Workers install a Gogo 2Ku satellite antenna on an aircraft. Airlines are upgrading to satellite-based internet connections.


 

Staying Connected At 10,000 Feet
Airlines are at various stages of upgrading in-flight Wi-Fi. Some have as many as four different kinds of service. Here's a look at who offers what for large-plane mainline flights (excluding regional flights):
 American: Wide-body international fleet has satellite connections in 129 of 150 aircraft. Domestic fleet mostly ground-based service. First narrow body satellite-equipped plane starts flying Nov. 29. Upgrades won't be completed until end of 2019.
 Delta: International planes have satellite connections. Domestic narrow-body conversion to satellite up to 238 of 700 planes. A319s and 737-800s have it. Working on A320s now.
 United: Entire fleet has satellite based service except for 15 Boeing 757s. Some 737s have coverage limited to continental U.S.
 Southwest: Entire fleet has satellite service. In the process of upgrade that delivers speeds three to four times faster than original.
 Alaska: Ground-based Wi-Fi service. Upgrade to satellite service starts next year, with completion in 2020. Virgin America has 53 air-to-ground planes and 12 satellite- equipped planes.
 JetBlue: Entire fleet has satellite based service, offered free. Coverage only over the contiguous U.S.  


By Scott McCartney

 

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