The WiFi on planes makes a convincing argument for the in-flight novel

In-flight wireless Internet connections are almost universally available. They’re also almost universally unreliable, slow and expensive.

Just ask Priscilla York, who tries, but often fails, to connect when she travels. On one recent flight, the wireless connection was severed for 20 minutes with no explanation and no apology. But the latest indignity really fried her circuits: She paid $48 for a domestic pass on Gogo. It worked on the flight from Raleigh, N.C., to Houston. But then she tried to log in on the flight from Houston to Honolulu, the second leg of her domestic flight.

“To my surprise, it didn’t work,” says York, an author based in New Bern, N.C. “I asked the flight attendant if there happened to be a problem on my end, and she said it didn’t work because this was considered an international flight.”

In an always-on society, being disconnected even for a few hours is considered unacceptable — including when we’re six miles above the Earth. Airlines know that, but they also see an opportunity to collect a little extra money, even if it means resorting to a little geopolitical revisionism. (Last time I checked, Hawaii was still part of the country.) Too often, the result is the worst of both worlds: a pricey, sluggish connection that fades in and out.

Steve Nolan, a spokesman for Gogo, which has partnerships with 12 commercial airlines and is installed on more than 2,500 commercial aircraft, said his company’s cellular-based technologies work only over land. But, he said, improvements are on the way for Gogo customers.

Gogo’s next version will bring 20 times the bandwidth of its first-generation technology, he said. “This will basically allow passengers to do anything they are used to on the ground, including stream movies.”

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There’s an almost 8 in 10 chance that you’ll have the option of a WiFi connection on your next domestic flight, according to a recent survey by Routehappy, a company that evaluates the quality of your in-flight experience. But the study doesn’t say whether it’s a good connection. That’s harder to determine, and it’s relative. If you compare it with the average home broadband connection, it’s downright awful. When you compare it with the average cellular connection, it’s not so bad. Fortunately, when things go wrong, airlines often will cough up a quick refund.

Routehappy measured connectivity based on a metric called available seat miles, an airline term for a plane’s passenger capacity. It’s equal to the number of seats available multiplied by the number of miles flown. By that measure, the three legacy carriers came out on top. The No. 1 carrier, Delta Air Lines, offers more than 500 million available seat miles with in-flight WiFi, followed by United Airlines (also 500 million miles) and American (more than 400 million miles).

“That’s a fair way of saying which airlines have WiFi and which ones don’t,” says Jason Rabinowitz, Routehappy’s data research manager. But it’s not the only way. Some smaller airlines, notably Virgin America and Icelandair, have more planes with WiFi — both are high in the 90th percentile. And Scoot, a low-cost, long-haul airline based in Singapore, offers wireless coverage in all of its aircraft.

Most important, there’s the quality of the connection, which is difficult to measure. Rabinowitz said only a handful of aircraft, most of them operated by JetBlue Airways, offer wireless connection speeds fast enough to stream a Netflix movie or a Google Hangout. Virgin America and some United Airlines planes do, too, but these three airlines are the exception rather than the rule.

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Connection speeds are only half the problem. Often, the signal isn’t available at all, which explains why York’s pass worked only on the first leg of her flight, which originated in Raleigh.

“The automatic in-flight announcement will tell passengers that we have all this great WiFi and they can stream their favorite programs,” says Tim Kirkwood, a veteran flight attendant and author. But his airline uses land-based technology to connect to the aircraft’s wireless systems, and on the routes he flies to the Caribbean, that means the plane quickly goes out of range. “So by the time we reach the 10,000 feet minimum for WiFi to work, we’re offshore and the WiFi doesn’t work.”

Even the best airlines have bad moments, passengers say. “The WiFi on Delta seems to do fine for simply downloading emails,” says Ronald Schmedly, director of a Cincinnati-based nonprofit group. “But for anything beyond that, it struggles mightily.”

He has tried to stream video on his Delta flights, but, he says, “it’s next to impossible.”

“You would like to think that if you are paying $16 for a WiFi one-day pass that the service would be good enough to use however you see fit,” he said. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like we are there yet in 2016.”

Travelers also gripe about the high prices that go along with the languid connection speeds. Connecting to a so-so wireless network used to cost $6 to $8 per flight, recalls Jack Shannon, an Internet entrepreneur based in Venice, Calif. “Now I often see $30 for an entire flight or $15 per hour on some flights.”

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The connection speed, meanwhile, is about the same as before. “They know they have you trapped up there, and they take advantage of it,” he says.

Fortunately, airlines and the wireless companies serving them seem to know that their WiFi is a work in progress, if not also a costly gamble that doesn’t always pay off, and they are usually quick to refund a purchase. Joe Palko, a business-development manager for a Web developer in Chicago, said he gets frustrated by the intermittent onboard connections when he uses Gogo on American Airlines.

“One thing I’ve learned is that when you have an outage, notifying Gogo after you reconnect helps a lot,” he says. “They often will give you credit for the poor connectivity.”

Nolan, the Gogo spokesman, says agents are tuned into requests such as Palko’s. “Our goal is to support all passengers who are having issues with the service, whether that’s in-flight or on the ground,” he says.

Still, prices will probably continue to rise as demand increases, while connection speeds struggle to keep pace. All of which means you can try the WiFi on your next flight, but even on the most wired aircraft, no one will offer you any promises. Only, maybe, a quick refund if the signal goes on the blink.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • BMG4ME

    It is frustrating when it doesn’t work. It’s luck of the draw. I usually find it works well. It’s tempting to complain about a miracle that could only have been dreamed about 20 years ago. I agree that if it doesn’t work, it’s a good opportunity to thank G-d for his blessings and catch up with things like reading that we all used to do before air wifi and onboard cellphone usage.

  • Joe Blasi

    because this was considered an international flight??? Should of asked for a free meal + beer then.

  • Peter Varhol

    Agree with you completely, Chris. On those few times when I absolutely have to work on a flight, I make sure I have everything I need on my computer. I don’t need to be in constant communication with everyone, and enjoy flying time as light reading time.

  • Jeff W.

    Don’t know where to begin…

    Fundamentally, the technical
    challenges in bringing high-speed internet to a metal tube flying 500+
    mph 6 miles up is much different than what can be offered at home or
    your local Starbucks. That technology is also much different, which is
    why there can be limitations when flying over the middle of the ocean.

    our ability to consume data is growing faster than the technology that
    can deliver it — especially in the air. The pricing on the plane
    reflects the supply and demand. There is limited bandwidth on the
    plane. If everyone could connect for free or real cheap, then everyone
    would. Then no one could, as the system would be overwhelmed.

    airlines could add more equipment, but that is costs more and adds more
    weight to the plane. And the technology is such that if the airlines
    invested lots of money, the odds are it would be obsolete by the time it
    was fully rolled out.

    (just thinking of that commercial with
    Ozzy Osbourne touting 4G, then 5G speeds and he is replaced
    mid-commercial with Justin Beiber and 6G)

    I like my quiet time on
    the plane. If I need to do work or watch a movie, I make sure I
    download it before I get on the plane. That way, I am not reliant on a
    connection that may or may not be there.

  • Randy Culpepper

    A Gogo single-airline 24 hour pass is $16 *IF* you buy it on the ground before boarding. How can anybody call themselves a frequent traveler and not know this?

  • AAGK

    Telling her it was “considered” international was the dummed down explanation for someone who can’t understand that there is no wireless when you over an ocean for hours.

  • AAGK

    I hope these folks aren’t giving FAs a hard time over wireless issues. They aren’t tech support.

  • BMG4ME

    Gogo does offer wireless on select international flights. It was on our flight to Israel from JFK last year and it was some crazy low price like $20. $20 for a mini-miracle. I would pay that if I had too!

  • DChamp56

    Hawaii is international huh… interesting.
    Like when I see a beer list that shows Samuel Adams as an import!

  • joycexyz

    Good grief!!! What in the world did we ever do before Wi-Fi??? May I suggest you relax and snooze or read a book. We don’t need to be forever connected.

  • JohntheKiwi

    Can’t say I’ve ever read about a more First World Problem.

  • jmtabb

    Too bad everyone didn’t just check their phrasing carefully. What’s intended, I think, is that these Wifi connections are much more fiddly when flying “OVERSEAS” – that word covers flights to Hawaii or Alaska, to the Caribbean and to almost all international destinations as well. Because you don’t have to be leaving the country to go “over the sea” :)

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