“Flight Testing” Southwest’s In-Flight WiFi

May 31, 2013

in Travel Tech

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(GoGo Photo)

(GoGo Photo)

Last week in “In-Flight WiFi? Why Not?” I noted that a few years ago durng a Phoenix to Oakland flight, I was able to connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi for free when Southwest was testing the system aboard select aircraft.

On recent round-trip flights between San Francisco and San Diego I had an opportunity to see how Southwest’s current paid WiFi service works, and whether it’s worth the cost of using it.

Southwest’s WiFi system is now powered by Row44, while that aboard planes operated by its wholly-owned subsidiary, AirTran, uses the GoGo WiFi product, as do seven other U.S. airlines, plus Air Canada. WiFi on Southwest planes works with any WiFi-enabled device that has a Web browser. I tried it with my iPad on the way to San Diego and my iPhone 5 on the way back.

Here’s my assessment.

High-flying Hotspot

SW WIFi HotspotAt well-grounded Starbucks, you connect to the Internet via a “hotspot.” The same thing happens on board a plane, except the “hotspot” isn’t stationary.

Not all Southwest planes are equipped with WiFi, but if your flight does, you’ll see a “Southwest Airlines Hotspot” sticker by the cabin door when you board. And you can find out if it will 24 hours before your scheduled departure by using Southwest’s WiFi Finder.

When your Southwest flight reaches an altitude of 10,000′ following take-off, a flight attendant will come on the PA system and let passengers know it’s okay to turn on electronic devices. You’ll then follow these steps to get on-line, in-flight:

  • Find “Southwest WiFi” in the list of available wireless networks.
  • Launch your Web browser to access the Southwest Hotspot portal.
  • Purchase WiFi access ($8/day per device) by clicking on “Get Connected” and filling in the requested information, including that for the credit card you’ll use to pay for the service.

What’s Available via WiFi

Once you’re connected to the Internet you can:

  • Receive and send e-mail.
  • Visit Websites.
  • Access (for a separate fee) Southwest’s on-board entertainment system.

No Can Do

Southwest’s in-flight WiFi works reasonable well, but there’s a few things it won’t let you do:

  • Watch Netflix movies.
  • Make VoIP phone calls through services like Skype or Facetime.
  • Visit porn sites.

WiFi Security

Ah, but can the “bad guys” hack into you computer or other device while you’re flying through the air with the greatest of ease? Southwest says:

“The onboard wireless connection is similar to a WiFi hotspot at a coffee shop, library, hotel, or airport. You should exercise the same precautions you would at one of those public locations.”

Inflight Entertainment

Unlike many other airlines, Southwest flights don’t have TV screens installed in seat backs or elsewhere aboard the planes.

But regardless of whether you want to pay for in-flight WiFi, while aboard a Southwest plane that has WiFi installed, you’ll be able to watch live TV, plus on-demand TV episodes and movies for either $5/day per device or on a pay-per-view basis.

(Update, June 15,2014: Southwest is offering free TV via DISH through year 2014 on U.S. domestic flights. Check Southwest’s Website for additional information. Before boarding the plane you may also need to download the “Onboard Player” app to your mobile device in order to watch copyrighted material during flight. See “Do I have to install anything on my device to watch TV or Movies?” on the “TV & Movies” section of Southwest’s Website.)
Southwest Inflight Entertainment

Inflight Entertainment

Here’s the live TV channel lineup:

  • CNBC
  • FOX 5 New York (WNYW)
  • FOX Business Network
  • FOX News Channel
  • MLB.com (Major League Baseball), when games are available
  • MSNBC
  • NBC Sports Network
  • NFL Network

This short promotional video from Southwest shows how the in-flight entertainment system works.

WiFi “Day”

So what’s a “Day” for WiFi purposes on Southwest, since you pay by the “Day” for WiFi Services?

If you started your travel day aboard a Southwest 737 jet equipped with WiFi and began, but didn’t finish, watching a movie before arriving at an airport where you had to change to another Southwest flight, you’ll be able to resume viewing that movie as long as the second plane has WiFi installed, too. The same should hold true for any on-demand TV show episode you were viewing during the first flight.

Of course, while you’re stuck at the airport waiting to catch that connecting flight, you won’t be able to view the flick or TV show.

Presumably that “Day” of WiFi connection that you paid for will allow you to surf the Web and do e-mail during that connection flight, too.

My Inflight WiFi Experience

Now you know how Southwest’s in-flight WiFi is set up. But how did using it work for me during my flights between San Francisco and San Diego?

Pretty well.

The planes for both my flight to San Diego and the return to San Francisco were WiFi equipped. And I was able to quickly find the Southwest WiFi network on my iPad and iPhone, and get to the Web page for purchasing the WiFi service.

The seat back tray table was just the right size for typing on my iPad’s ZAGG physical keyboard. So entering my contact and billing information was fairly easy.

I’m not sure if I could have simply entered my Southwest Rapid Rewards number and had that information automatically filled in, but that would have a plus, particularly on the return flight when I had to type it in using the virtual keyboard on my iPhone.

Retrieving e-mail seemed a bit slow, but that may have been due to the fact that I’ve got several e-mail accounts and each one was being checked for new mail.

Web surfing seemed reasonably fast. Live TV and an on-demand TV episode streamed to my iPad without any herky-jerky, start-and-stop issues, and pixelation was only one-time, brief problem.

Southwest has a nifty “Flight Tracker” built into its WiFi system that lets you see where the plane is and how much time is left until the flight lands.

One thing I couldn’t get to work: Attaching a photo or my location to a Tweet that I posted to Twitter during the flight.

The Bottom Line

Excerpt for the somewhat laborious effort needed to enter one’s billing information, especially if you have to re-enter it not just when you sign up for WiFi, but everytime you purchase a new movie or TV episode, Southwest’s inflight Wi-Fi was fairly easy to use.

But does it make sense to pay for it?

I had about 45 minutes of WiFi use while flying from San Francisco to San Diego. So even though I paid $8 for a “day” of WiFi, my actual cost was nearly $11/hour. Add to that $5 for a half-hour of TV, and the $13 I paid works out to be more like $20/hour.

On the return flight to San Francisco I ate lunch aboard, had only had time to use WiFi for about an half-hour,  so connecting to the Internet in-flight cost me $16/hour.

If you’re on a moderately long flight of 4 hours or more, ponying up the bucks for inflight WiFi might be justified. But unless you have a compelling need for an Internet connection fro the air, I’d recommend simply waiting until your flight lands and you can either use a cellular carrier’s data network, or a (mostly likely free) WiFi network inside the airport terminal.

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