WiFi on Airlines: Users Will Find It's Worth the Trouble

NEWS ANALYSIS: Airlines in the U.S. and elsewhere are outfitting their aircraft with on-board WiFi, but it's one thing to have working WiFi and another to have a WiFi service that works well.

To say that I was surprised when I saw the WiFi logo as I boarded the old United Airlines Airbus A319 that would take me from San Francisco to Seattle would be an understatement. I was astonished. While airlines everywhere are putting wireless network connections on airplanes, mostly it's been installed when the aircraft are built or when they've been renovated. But there on the door of a decidedly middle-aged United Airlines plane was that logo.

After I got settled into my seat, I checked for the United WiFi SSID. Nothing. But we were still at the gate, so I knew it was likely because the access point simply hadn't been turned on. I waited until we'd taken off out of San Francisco and checked again. This time the access point appeared.

First, I took care of the really important things, like ordering a drink when the flight attendants trundled their carts down the aisle. Then, with drink perched on the tray table, I tried to log on. The United log-on screen first requests your name and Mileage Plus (United's frequent flyer program) number, and then a coupon code or a credit card. Fill out the credit card information and the airline will email your receipt to you.

But the real question is, how well does it work? The short answer is that it works pretty well. You won't mistake it for connecting through the WiFi router in your office, but that's not to say it's a bad experience. It's not. It's just different.

The biggest reason it's different is because United uses a satellite communications system rather than the ground stations used by other airlines. According to United spokesperson Karen May, all of United's mainline aircraft are getting WiFi capability, but she said that it's an ongoing process. This means that some aircraft, such as the old Boeing 757-200 that I flew on between Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, don't have it.

In fact, some airplanes including the 757 I rode on never will have WiFi. They're due for retirement, to be replaced by new aircraft that will be equipped with WiFi as well as wireless entertainment systems that let you watch movies and television shows on your mobile device.

But of course, the more important question is, how well does it work for getting your work done? The answer again is that it works pretty well. Once you go through the sign-in process, you're connected to WiFi that seems to have fairly fast download speeds, although because the communications are satellite-based, latency is quite long—normally a second or so, perhaps slightly longer. This means that you have to remember not to keep clicking things that don't seem to respond right away because your clicks might do things you didn't expect.

I didn't attempt to measure network speeds, although I did notice that downloads seem much faster than uploads. In fact, when I took a couple of photos as the sun set over the lower reaches of Puget Sound, the photos took quite awhile to upload to the cloud.

I was using a phone from T-Mobile that supports WiFi calling, and the indicator was lighted, indicating that I was able to make voice phone calls using the WiFi connection. However, that feature didn't work, which is no surprise since United warns that streaming of video and sound isn't supported. What did work is SMS messaging, which usually requires a cellular connection or WiFi Calling on T-Mobile.

The bottom line is you can use the WiFi connection on United for getting your work done, as long as it entails checking your email or using the Web. Don't plan on sending out a lot of graphics or making phone calls, however.

United isn't the only airline that's providing WiFi, and others have outfitted more of their fleets. The biggest difference between United and the other airlines is that United uses satellite communications, while most other airlines use a ground-based communications system from GoGo, which uses the ground-based cellular network for Internet access. I recently tried WiFi on a Delta flight and found speeds to be lower and latency also to be lower. Incidentally, United also uses GoGo on the 15 Premium Service aircraft that fly between JFK and San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The cost of WiFi on an airplane depends on both the airline and the duration of the flight. I paid $6.99 for my flight between San Francisco and Seattle. I have not priced the service on other routes and other airlines.

So the answer is, yes, WiFi on airlines does work, and it usually works well enough that you can get work done. But it's important to know that there can be periodic outages as the system switches between satellites or when there's bad weather. The outages on ground-based systems happen for different reasons, but they still happen. In addition, I found on some flights that while the WiFi appears to be up and running, it may not always work. This means that while you can get work done, you may not always be able to depend on it, at least not yet.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...