Every traveler’s eternal question: ‘It’s 2017, why don’t we have Wi-Fi on all planes?’

When it comes to travel, Internet access has never been more ubiquitous — or more underwhelming.

Don’t take my word for it. Just ask Wendy Lewis, who says she spends a good part of every trip trying — and sometimes failing — to find reliable and reasonably priced hotspots. Airport lounges make connecting a cinch, she says. But the moment she boards a bus, plane or train, it’s a headache, with slow speeds, high bills and frequent outages.

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“It’s always a challenge for me and a point of tremendous frustration,” says Lewis, a beauty consultant from New York.

That’s a common sentiment. The release of a study on airport Wi-Fi earlier this year and a move by JetBlue to include wireless service in its fares has sparked a broader conversation among travelers about connectivity and what they should expect in the future. Short answer: faster connections, same frustrations. But don’t worry, there are workarounds.

The research, published by Speedtest by Ookla, an Internet testing and metrics company, examined the 20 American airports with the most passenger boardings. It reviewed the results of consumer-initiated Speedtest data for the four largest cellular carriers as well as airport-sponsored Wi-Fi at each location, and found that Denver, Philadelphia and Seattle offered the fastest wireless connection speeds. The slowest: Atlanta, Orlando and San Francisco.

Earlier this year, JetBlue Airways said it would begin to include the cost of wireless connections in its fares, effectively offering a fast Wi-Fi connection to every passenger without extra cost. In doing so, JetBlue became the first major U.S. air carrier to give every passenger a wireless connection, and possibly has paved the way for wireless Internet connections to be included in the cost of other airline tickets.

In a related development, American Airlines announced in January that its new Boeing 737 Max aircraft, scheduled to be delivered later this year, would not have seat-back entertainment systems, noting that most of their passengers bring their own devices. That’s bound to boost appetites for onboard Wi-Fi.

“Connectivity is as essential as the air we breathe,” says Dawn Callahan, the chief marketing officer at Boingo Wireless, which offers cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity to travelers. She says demand for its product has increased twentyfold in just five years, thanks to travelers’ voracious appetite for fast wireless connections. The majority of business travelers carry three devices — usually a phone, a tablet and a laptop computer. Adds Callahan, “We’ve never seen more Wi-Fi usage than we do today.”

The numbers back up that assertion. A Research+Data Insights study commissioned by Red Roof Inn found that 7 in 10 travelers say that fast, accessible Wi-Fi is more important than a hotel’s location, parking facilities and even free breakfast. Where do travelers want to connect? Almost everywhere. A survey by Xirrus, a provider of high-density Wi-Fi, found that 83 percent of users connect at hotels, 72 percent log on at cafes and 64 percent use airport hotspots.

“Wi-Fi is no longer a luxury,” says Gary Griffiths, chief executive of wireless connectivity company iPass, “but an expectation.”

And that’s the problem. Everyone wants to be online, and wireless providers are having trouble keeping up with demand. A Cisco study predicts that by 2020, the number of wireless hotspots worldwide will rise to 432 million, a sixfold increase.

Consider the experience of frequent business travelers such as Andy Abramson, a Los Angeles communications consultant who practically lives on the road. Airports know that they must offer Wi-Fi, “but with more people carrying more devices, the networks often are overloaded and not really useful for much more than Web browsing and email,” he says. “Streaming eats up a lot of bandwidth, and most airport networks just can’t handle that many people listening or watching streamed content.”

Abramson prefers heading to one of the airport lounges, which offer their own networks to members — at a price. Failing that, he logs on with his Boingo subscription account, which offers a speedier connection than Boingo’s free Wi-Fi offering. (Boingo charges $9.95 a month for Abramson’s unlimited premium plan.)

Alex Gizis, the co-founder of Speedify, a company that develops apps that optimize your Internet for speed and security, says that we have reached a tipping point in travel. Both demand and frustration are so high that people are giving up in their attempts to connect.

“More people are hitting hotspots that don’t work,” he says. “That’s so frustrating that people actually just give up on Wi-Fi.”

The travel industry is trying to keep up with demand. For example, hotels are moving toward speedier 5 GHz hotspots, an upgrade from the industry standard, a 2.4 GHz wireless access point. But, says Matthew FitzGerald, a systems engineering manager for Ruckus Wireless, a manufacturer of wireless networking equipment, the upgrade has been a challenge. “Not everyone has made these changes, and some have done them incorrectly,” he says.

At the rate they’re going, it’s unlikely that they ever will meet the demand by customers in an always-on society.

“I live and die by Wi-Fi,” explains Alexandra Mandel of Ambler, Pa., a business-development manager for a company that organizes executive retreats. In fact, she can’t plan a conference without guaranteeing that the participants will have access to reliable wireless connections.

And yet, she regularly finds herself on planes without a connection or at hotels where the only wireless access point can be found in the lobby — or for a steep price. The wireless-free planes are the greatest mystery to her.

“It’s 2017,” Mandel says. “Why don’t we have Wi-Fi on all planes?”

The short-term fixes are inelegant, at best. Travelers can subscribe to a service such as Boingo or carry their own wireless hotspot from a cellular provider. (The Ookla survey also rates those; Detroit, San Francisco and Minneapolis are the fastest.) Or they can take their chances with the strained networks at their airport or hotel, or aboard their aircraft.

Down the road, it’s up to the industry to develop better standards that offer faster connection speeds, perhaps with the encouragement of bandwidth-starved travelers and legislators who are embarrassed by the fact that many other countries offer better connection options than the United States.

Kevin Robinson, the vice president of marketing for industry trade group Wi-Fi Alliance, says that in the short term, new technology may ease some of the pain.

“In 2017, travelers will benefit from more seamless and secure access to Wi-Fi networks, resulting in a better overall experience with Wi-Fi while traveling,” he says. Many hotels and airports are deploying a new standard called Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint networks, which allows users to skip the lengthy authenticating process for each new Wi-Fi network. Instead, you just log in once.

If only getting connected were always that easy.

19 thoughts on “Every traveler’s eternal question: ‘It’s 2017, why don’t we have Wi-Fi on all planes?’

  1. When I need Wi-Fi and can’t get it (and I’m not on a plane), turning my phone into a Hotspot works just fine. Sure, it’d be a bad idea to stream Netflix that way, but for pretty much any other task it works just fine.

    As far as “why don’t all planes have Wi-Fi”? Because the technology is expensive and difficult to implement. It’s nice that JetBlue is upgrading their whole fleet to include usable connections, but make no mistake, this was not a cheap or easy upgrade to roll out. Getting ever-increasing amounts of bandwidth from the Earth’s surface to an aircraft traveling hundreds of miles per hour is not exactly like plugging a router into your cable modem.

    Personally, my on-board WiFi experience has been mixed, about 2/3rds of the time it works okay and the other 1/3 it’s so slow as to be utterly useless (I always request a refund in that case, and get one.)

    1. I do the same thing with my personal hotspot. The problem is that for your personal hotspot to work, you have to have good cellular service…and that’s not always available. I take Amtrak down to San Diego sometimes, and need to work for the whole trip. And while Amtrak touts their free Wifi, it’s really awful – spotty, constantly going down, extremely slow. So I’ll use my personal hotspot…but that’s no panacea either, as I hit cellular dead zones.

      The technology just doesn’t seem to be keeping pace with the demand. Hopefully this will get better over time.

    2. It is also easier to add to technology to your fleet when you fly the same type of plane. JetBlue is all Airbus 320/321. Southwest is famous for flying only 737s. Compared to an airline like United that has a mix of planes from different manufacturers.

      There are pros and cons to each fleet strategy. What works for one airline, may not for another. But rolling out new features.is certainly a con when you have more planes and more plane types.

      1. In addition to utilizing A320/A321, JetBlue also uses 60 Embraer 190/195. Each carries between 100 and 116 passengers. This aircraft type is used for lower density flights on routes under 2000 miles. The Embraers make up about 30% of the JetBlue fleet.

  2. Your article hits on several hot topics. Comments regarding how “Wi-Fi is no longer a luxury” and “Connectivity is as essential as the air we breathe” are coming from wi-fi industry people with a product to sell. Not exactly neutral opinions. But two main points:

    Airport Wi-fi. The challenge here is that airports are typically owned or operated by a gov’t entity. Not typically known for speedy decision making. And with 1000s (or more) people trying to connect to a network, those are some serious costs to build out and maintain. So you can either charge for it or add more taxes to pay for it.

    In Plane Wi-Fi. The technology moves pretty fast and it takes years for an airline to plan a fleet-wide rollout of any type of technology. And adding any type of equipment on a plane also requires gov’t approvals. Reminds me of that cell-phone commercial with Ozzy Osbourne talking about 4G and he is replaced mid-commercial with Justin Beiber touting 5G. The technology moves faster than the airlines can roll out the product.

  3. So, no more seatback entertainment units because everybody is using personal devices? Two problems: Everybody is NOT using their own device or even wants to use one on a plane.. And didn’t they realize that the evil government is about to ban devices in the cabin? Of course, there is always that old device called a “book.”

  4. If you travel a lot (even if you don’t) and tend to stay at Marriott and Hilton properties exclusively and those properties don’t normally charge resort fees, the included WI-Fi access is reason enough to join their frequent stay program.

    1. I’m Hilton Gold, so I’ve stayed at a few in the past several years. All Hilton branded properties (including Hampton Inn, Embassy Suites, Homewood, Home2, etc.) I’ve stayed at have had complimentary guest wifi in addition to the free wifi you get with Hilton Honors. Their premium, I believe is $4.95.

    2. I’m a member of Marriott Rewards. Last week, I stayed at the Marriott Airport Hotel in Orlando and learned that if I had booked my room my room at marriott.com or by utilizing their toll-free phone number, I would have been given free Wi-Fi. Because the booking came through a travel agent, no connectivity was provided unless I chose to pay $10 per night.. I believe that this policy is short-sighted and can only serve to alienate travel agents and get them to recommend similar properties where Wi-Fi is included.

  5. I must be an oddity as I will not use WIFI on planes. I will read on my tablet or watch a movie, but the only time I am disconnected from email is in the air. Until actually forced to log on by work I will continue to be disconnected from the internet while flying.

    1. You’re not an oddity. I can’t think of anytime where I can’t find enough to do on a plane without having to be online. I have programs on my computer, I can work locally if need be, or can download movies/books/magazines. I don’t need to be instant messaging people while I am up in the air. We are at the point where most places on the ground still don’t seem to have their wi fi working decently enough. When I am home, it works perfectly. Most other places, it seems to be iffy. Well “at the office” it is fine, but I know why that is..

    2. I don’t think you’re odd at all. If I’m traveling for business and need to work, I need to have it…but if I’m flying for vacation or personal reasons, I am LOGGED OUT baby! 🙂

    3. Ditto. I take a book and enjoy time away from constant contact. We survived quite nicely without the need for instant gratification for most of my life.

    4. Good for you! Why people feel the need to check email, Facebook, Twitter, etc., constantly is beyond me. I guess I’m just not “important” enough to have that compulsion.

  6. I too, never use WiFi on airplanes, nor do I want to pay for someone else’s use of it. Odd how people feel they have to have WiFi, or believe it’s a right to have.

  7. I always take a book or two and a couple of crossword puzzles to get me through a coast to coast trip days when there’s too much cloud cover to enjoy the scenery below.

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