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

Shutterstock

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend