In-Flight Internet Update

In-flight Internet presents an interesting paradox: When it's available, only about 5 to 10 percent of travelers actually use it, but it's becoming a virtual necessity for the world's airlines. Acceptance by U.S. domestic lines varies substantially, and it's even lower overseas, but the world's airlines are all moving ahead with large-scale installations.

In-flight Wi-Fi uses two basic technologies:

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  • The GoGo system, currently on the majority of U.S. installations, is based on lots of ground-level transceivers, and is therefore available only over the continental United States.
  • Systems designed for intercontinental use must necessarily use satellites rather than ground stations; the several systems leading the pack include Aeromobile (partially owned by Panasonic), Row 44, and ViaSat.

Recognizing the need for worldwide coverage, GoGo is adapting to satellite service in areas not covered by ground stations, to be available starting in 2015. Meanwhile, it is adding extra modems and antennas to many of its existing installations to increase bandwidth.

Here's how the main North American airlines stack up as of early 2013:

  • Air Canada: GoGo on a few 319s, available when traveling over the United States.
  • AirTran: GoGo on all planes.
  • American: GoGo on all 767-200s and some MD80s and 737s.
  • Alaska: GoGo on all mainline planes except for a few of the oldest 737-400s.
  • Delta: GoGo on all 319s, 320s, 737-700s, 757-300s, 767-300s, MD88s, MD90s, CRJ 700/900s, and ERJ 170/175s; GoGo on some DC9-50s and 757-200s. Delta says it will add the overseas option "soon."
  • Frontier: GoGo on all ERJs.
  • JetBlue: ViaSat "coming in 2013."
  • Southwest: Row 44 "currently being implemented" for the entire fleet; industry estimates say about 50 percent of its planes have it now and 70 percent will have it by the end of 2013.
  • United: GoGo currently on transcontinental "PS" flights only, but it's being added to other planes.
  • US Airways: GoGo on all 321s, almost all ERJs, and more than half of 320s and 319s.
  • Virgin America: GoGo on all planes.

In addition, Row 44 shows Allegiant and Icelandair as customers, but the airlines don't feature Wi-Fi yet.

Overseas airline installations all use satellite systems. Among the more advanced users are Emirates (380s), Gulf Air (more than half the fleet), Lufthansa (330s and some 340s and 747s), and Singapore ("select" planes). Other big lines are planning installations within the next year or two.

In general, these installations all allow Internet browsing by laptops and handheld devices. Some apparently use conventional Wi-Fi links; apparently, others depend on 3G connections. A few other lines provide 3G connections for smart-device use but not full Internet, which may entail roaming charges as well as service charges.

GoGo establishes a standard pricing system: $14 for a single all-day use, $39.95 monthly for unlimited use on one airline, and $49.95 monthly for all airlines. Individual airlines offer other pricing options or special promotions; rates may be lower for handset use confined (as opposed to laptop use). Aeromobile and OnAir charges vary by airline but are typically about $15 an hour or $25 for 24 hours; Southwest charges $8 for all-day use of Row 44.

Just about everyone agrees that in-flight connectivity is an important wave of the future for air travel. Although the number of users on an "average" flight may be low, trade reports suggest that upward of 25 percent of the passengers on flights with a high percentage of business travelers use the service. Also, usage rates are apparently high on Virgin America, supposedly because it attracts a younger tech-savvy set of travelers.

These days, the line between smartphones and computers is getting pretty hard to define, and the migration to tablets and other hybrid phone-computer devices will add to the pressure on airlines to install the required systems.

If you're hooked on being connected, finding a flight with onboard Wi-Fi is pretty easy: Most airline websites and third-party airfare search systems indicate service on each flight by some sort of icon. My guess is that it will be only a few years before almost every flight can keep you online.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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