United Airlines offers two ways to stay on-line in flight

While I often seize the opportunity of air travel to enjoy a few hours of being serenely disconnected from all that’s happening on the ground, there are times when one simply must stay in touch. My recent flight from Seattle (SEA) to Chicago's O'Hare (ORD) to attend a funeral was one such occasion, so I was pleased to learn that United Airlines began installing United Wi-Fi on select airplanes in 2013.

Unlike competing service GoGo, United’s Wi-Fi is satellite-based, while GoGo uses a hybrid of satellite and ground-based cell phone technologies.

While United has installed United Wi-Fi on 190 aircraft as of the date of this post, the airline also offers GoGo service on all of its Boeing 757 aircraft on p.s.® premium service transcontinental flights between New York (JFK) and both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO).

Pricing for both services will vary based on the length of the flight. “The correct pricing for your flight is displayed in the United Wi-Fi portal prior to purchase,” is the way United’s FAQs about the United Wi-Fi service put it. My flight of a little less than four hours was $9.99, which I judged to be quite reasonable. On the return flight over the same route, the charge was inexplicably a dollar less, at $8.99. By contrast, 90 minutes of GoGo access aboard a recent Alaska Airlines flight between Seattle (SEA) and San Antonio (SAT) cost me $10, and that was thanks to a “Buy 60 minutes, get 30 minutes free” special.

There are limitations with both services, as one might conclude from the proviso that they do not support video streaming or other high-bandwidth functions. Speed is somewhat limited but generally fine for checking e-mail and cruising most websites. According to Speakeasy.net/speedtest, I got about 0.6 Mbps download speed and 0.1 upload speed. Not lightning-fast, but pretty decent considering I was at 35,000 feet over southern Minnesota.

At present, a purchase of United Wi-Fi allows passengers to access the Internet for the duration of a single flight between two different cities. “In some cases, your trip may require you to make a stopover between your origin and final destination,” the FAQs said. “This is viewed as two different flights, even though you may have a single flight number.”

In the future, United hopes to offer additional options for its Wi-Fi product – possibly including daily, weekly and/or monthly access.

For the time being, though, that gives GoGo a slight advantage because it offers per-flight access, daily passes, and two monthly passes: one for “your favorite airline” and another “all-access pass” that works on any airline that offers GoGo. That could make GoGo the more economical option for frequent fliers; however, you won’t have the option to choose between GoGo and United Wi-Fi. If your aircraft is equipped with Wi-Fi, it’ll be either one or the other, not both, so the point is somewhat academic.

Regardless of those minor differences, it’s nice to know such connectivity is available if you want or need to stay in touch.

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