Up in the Air with In-Flight Wi-Fi

June 30, 2017

in Travel Tech

  • SumoMe

We have an almost preternatural urge to remain constantly connected to our electronic gadgets, even while cruising in a “tin tube” six or more miles above the surface of Planet Earth.

Four years ago I wrote two stories about in-flight Wi-Fi: One about the topic in general, and another that reviewed Wi-Fi service available on Southwest Airline flights.

GoGo-laptop-user-2_0.jpg

A trip to Phoenix last month gave me an opportunity to use the Wi-Fi and in-flight entertainment systems on Southwest during the Portland-to-Phoenix leg of my trip, and that on an Alaska Airlines flight back to Portland a week later.

Here’s what I learned.

Gadgets that Work In-flight

Southwest’s system will work with Wi-Fi capable devices including Apple and Android smartphones and tablets, and PC and Mac laptop computers.

You need not download any apps, plugins or special software to use Southwest’s inflight Wi-Fi systems, including watching TV or movies.

If you plan to watch free movies or TV on an Alaska Airlines flight, you need the free Gogo Entertainment app which is available for laptops (you may need to have Adobe Flash Player installed as well), Apple and Android smartphones and tablets. You should download and install that app before boarding the plane. If, like me, you had previously downloaded a “Gogo Player” app, you’ll need to replace it with the “Gogo Entertainment” app.

Logging On

Logging onto Southwest’s inflight Wi-Fi system was a piece of cake. I had no problem accessing it with both my iPhone and iPad.

But I found it very difficult to get connected to the Internet on the Alaska Airlines flight. It took multiple tries, and never could get my iPad to work with the in-flight entertainment system.

New Internet Connectivity

When I wrote my 2013 stores about in-flight Wi-Fi, airlines were using air-to-ground systems to connect passengers to the Internet.

GoGohdtowersandplane1_0.jpgThree years later, in March of 2016, the online Website “Dallas News” (published by The Dallas Morning News newspaper) reported that 81% of Southwest Airlines planes were equipped with newer, faster satellite-based Wi-Fi systems. The airline said that by the end of 2017 it expected all 700 of its aircraft would be able to provide Wi-Fi service to customers.

On the other hand, it appears that Alaska Airlines, at least for the moment, has decided to continue using the older air-to-ground cell tower system from Gogo due to considerations involving the routes the airline flies, even though Gogo can provide its airline customers with satellite-based Wi-Fi systems.

What You Still Can’t Do

Although Alaska and Southwest use different technologies to connect to the Internet, there are still two things that passengers will find that their smartphone, tablets or computers can’t do in-flight:

  • Stream movies from services like Netflix or Amazon Prime.
  • Make voice or video telephone calls.

“Live” Video Broadcasting

Since I wrote the 2013 in-flight Wi-Fi stories, smartphone users gained the ability to post “live broadcast” video to people via Facebook or Periscope social media sites.

On the Southwest Portland-to-Phoenix flight I was able to do a Facebook “Live” video broadcast that posted to my Facebook page.

But ambient noise aboard the plane overrode the audio recording of my voice using the microphone built into my iPhone earbuds, making it virtually impossible for anyone playing back the video to hear what I was saying. If I had used an external microphone, such as a lavalier (“lapel”) mike, my voice might have “out-dueled” the background noise.

I tried Facebook “live” broadcasting during the Alaska Airlines return flight from Phoenix to Portland, but the app quit working after 11 seconds, probably because Alaska’s Gogo ground-to-air Internet system wasn’t robust enough to handle live video streaming to Facebook.

The visual quality of the video was poor, probably for the same reason. I didn’t speak during that short, 11-second broadcast, but you can hear the loud cabin noise which probably would have drowned out my voice unless I’d had used an external microphone.

E-mail

I could send and receive e-mail on both flights, but I thought e-mail was a bit slow downloading on the Southwest flight even though the plane’s Wi-Fi system probably was connected to the Internet via satellite.

Movies and Entertainment

Neither the Southwest nor Alaska Wi-Fi systems permit passengers to stream movies from services like Netflix or Amazon Prime.

YouTube videos loaded excruciatingly slow on the Southwest flight, making it virtually impossible to view them, and not at all on the Alaska flight.

Both airlines offer limited free TV and movies through the in-flight entertainment systems that you can access with your mobile devices.

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(Alaska Airlines Photo)

Southwest also offers additional movies and TV programs on a pay-per-view basis.

But depending on the length of your flight, you might not be able to complete viewing an entire movie or TV show.

Both my Southwest and Alaska flights lasted about two hours, which included time taxiing from the gate to the runway, taking off, climbing to 10,000’ (an altitude at which electronic devices might finally be allowed to be turned on), descending to a landing, and taxiing to the gate on arrival.

So, as a practical matter, I had perhaps an hour-plus at cruising altitude to most comfortably watch a show or film with my tablet sitting on a seat back tray table.

During the Southwest flight, I had time to watch part, but not all, of an episode of the TV series The Path which was produced for the streaming service Hulu to which I do not subscribe at home.

On the Alaska flight, I watched about half of Mad Max: Fury Road on my iPhone (which I would have preferred to view on my iPad with its much larger screen, but wasn’t able to do so became I wasn’t able to connect it to Alaska’s in-flight entertainment system). The movie played just as well on my iPhone as it would have it if I had streamed it over Wi-Fi in my home, was visually sharp and with audio as good as one can when listening through an iPhone’s earbuds.

Power to the Passengers

The Alaska plane on which I flew did had an AC power outlet on the seat back in front of me which I used to keep my devices’ batteries charged during flight; the aircraft on my Southwest Portland-Phoenix flight did not have power outlets at passenger seats.

Pricing

When I wrote my 2013 story about its in-flight Wi-Fi service, Southwest charged $8/day per device for Internet access; that fee hasn’t increased.

Southwest also provides free live and on-demand television with a “selection of live TV channels and select on-demand TV episodes from popular series.” However, “due to licensing regulations, free live TV may not be available onboard Wi-Fi-enabled international flights.

Additional on-demand movies and TV shows are available for $5 each, per device on Southwest flights.

Alaska charges $16/day, $36 for six 45 minute “passes,” or $49.95/month.

  • But the Website for Alaska’s Gogo Wi-Fi provider quotes different rates:
  • $1/hour (which I paid on my flight);
  • $19/day;
  • $59.95/month for a two-device plan;
  • $69.95 for a “Global Delta” plan (domestic and international flights on Alaska’s partner, Delta Airlines); and
  • $599.00 for an annual pass.

You can watch movies and TV shows without paying for Internet access, and Alaska’s Website shows what’s available to watch during the current month. But unlike Southwest, Alaska does not offer additional movies or TV shows to rent.

Free music listening is available on Alaska Airlines flights, too.

(Alaska Airlines Photo)

(Alaska Airlines Photo)

Alaska also provides free “chat” (text messaging), which I didn’t test, apparently without you paying for Wi-Fi access in order to use it.

(Alaska Airlines Photo)

(Alaska Airlines Photo)

On flights longer than three and a half hours, you may be able to rent an “inflight entertainment tablet” from Alaska or, if you are seated in First Class, use one for free.

The Bottom Line

Both Alaska and Southwest have moved the location where passengers traditionally viewed in-flight entertainment. Instead of being on a seat-back screen, it’s now on passengers own mobile devices. If you don’t own a smartphone or tablet, you’ll have to keep yourself amused during the flight by reading the airline’s in-flight magazine or a book you brought aboard with you.

You will be able to send and receive e-mail, although I didn’t test doing so with large documents, photo or video files attached or download through links to a service like Dropbox.

Forget about watching movies or TV shows from the streaming video services that you subscribe to at home. You probably won’t have any luck watching YouTube videos, either.

And, at least to the pleasure of some airline passengers, you still can’t make VoIP or video phone calls, although it may be possible to do “live video broadcasting.”

I’d prefer airlines to offer Internet connection pricing on a “length of flight” basis, rather than by a minimum of one hour (which is probably not longer enough) or a full day (which would probably be far longer than my flight).

The Let’s Fly Cheaper blog posted a map and list of airlines that offer Wi-Fi at locations world-wide. The U.K.’s Daily Mail published a story that included that map plus additional information about pricing and availability of in-flight Wi-Fi.

If you are planning to travel by air and need or want to be able to connect to the Internet and access an in-flight entertainment system, and have AC power at your seat, check the airline’s Website before you book.

If you want to get that information for flights that all airlines offer between any pair of airports, try using Routehappy.com, which uses icons to indicate what’s available and what’s not.

Seatguru.com gives you the same information (easiest to obtain if you enter the airline, flight number, and date of travel), plus more about the seat itself.

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