Staying connected while in flight

Every day, more aircraft are being outfitted with systems that allow in-flight connectivity, but aIl such services are not created equal. As I experience the different services, I will compare and contrast, and share what I find.

My most recent connection from 34,000 feet was made via Southwest Airlines’ in-flight Wi-Fi system on a flight from Seattle (SEA) to Sacramento (SMF). Like most in-flight systems I’ve encountered, Southwest does not offer access to applications that use a significant amount of bandwidth like streaming music or video or Skype chats, but for $8, I was connected – after a fashion – and was able to do a few basic tasks.

I say “after a fashion” because Southwest’s connection was painfully slow at 0.2 Mbps, as measured by While I could check and send text-only e-mails, forget about opening attachments or visiting web sites that have more than a minimal level of graphics.

Other services I’ve used recently did better.

On a recent United Airlines flight between Seattle (SEA) and Chicago (ORD), I got about 0.6 Mbps download speed and 0.1 upload speed when using the United Wi-Fi service offered on that flight. Not lightning-fast, but about triple the speed of the Southwest service and pretty decent considering I was at 35,000 feet over southern Minnesota.

In addition, United also offers GoGo Inflight Internet 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), so United passengers will encounter both services.

Two of my recent experiences with GoGo yielded dramatically different results. I purchased a 90-minute pass for $10 on a flight from Seattle (SEA) to San Antonio (SAT) in January and a similar pass for my return flight. While service on the flight out was about as expected, the connection on the return flight was so slow that I could only access the starting page of the web sites I was trying to visit, making the service essentially useless. However, a quick e-mail to GoGo customer service upon my return brought an apology and a credit toward future service.

In December, I was treated to Lufthansa’s Wi-Fi when I traveled between SEA and Frankfurt (FRA). On most Lufthansa flights, a satellite-based service called FlyNet connects to a Deutsche Telecom Hot Spot, providing passengers complimentary Internet access once the plane has reached cruising altitude and is outside U.S. airspace. In keeping with that connectedness, I posted my original entry from 38,000 feet as we were passing over Hudson’s Bay in Canada.

While I was not able to obtain a precise connection speed, it seemed to be about 0.5 Mbps or 0.6 Mbps, the same as United’s WiFi and slightly slower than the 1.0 Mbps Internet connection speed at most of the hotels I’ve visited recently.

Although slow service can be frustrating, bear in mind that there are many things that will affect the speed of your connection.

Different services use different technologies for connecting. United’s Wi-Fi is satellite-based, while GoGo uses a hybrid of satellite and ground-based cell phone technologies. Different technologies vary in efficiency.

Connection speed also depends on how many of your fellow passengers have logged on; after all, you’re sharing that single connection between the plane and the Internet, and that connection has limited throughput.

Cost is also an area where the services differ.

Most services offer options: either the full duration of the flight or a specific period of time. For my last Gogo connection, I chose a special rate for my 90-minute package:Buy 60 minutes at $9.95 and get 30 minutes free. On Southwest, the $8 rate covered the entire flight, which was about 1 hour, 45 minutes. Inexplicably, United charged $8.99 for one direction between SEA and ORD, and $9.99 for the other direction. But with flights of about four hours, I thought either rate was very reasonable indeed.

Lufthansa, as noted, provides complimentary Internet access.

As of March 1. Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) began offering passengers aboard select international flights the option of purchasing Internet access via its new ANA Wi-Fi Service. Unlike many in-flight plans that charge by the amount of time used, ANA’s plan charges by the amount of data transmitted. ANA offers three plans that allow 5 MB, 10 MB or 20 MB of data at a cost of US$6, US$12, or US$24, respectively. ANA’s service also includes free news content from wire service reports.

I suspect we’ll see more and better connectivity as the market penetration of such services increases. If we’re fortunate, we’ll also enjoy lower prices.

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