Airplane Wi-Fi expands but gets a lukewarm reception

Your odds of flying on a plane with Internet access keep getting better. A rising number of domestic flights—close to half, according to a New York Times report—offer Wi-Fi service onboard. The numbers are even higher for the major carriers. US Airways, for example, provides Wi-Fi on almost 90 percent of its domestic flights. The Federal Aviation Administration’s decision last year to allow airline passengers to use personal electronic devices during all stages of the flight could fuel the demand for Wi-Fi.

But relatively few airplane passengers are using onboard Wi-Fi, according to a recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Of 3,000 leisure travelers polled, 23 percent attempted to connect to Wi-Fi while on a flight, and only 16 percent actually connected. The fact that more than three out of four travelers didn’t even try to use Wi-Fi suggests that they are either content being unplugged, unaware that it’s available, or unwilling to pay for Web access.

Cost could be a deterrent, especially for vacationers who can’t charge the fees to a company expense account. On major airlines including United Airlines, Virgin America, and Delta Air Lines, Wi-Fi prices start at $5 an hour. All-day passes range from $8 on Southwest Airlines to $14 on other carriers, including American Airlines. Several airlines offer a $40 monthly pass; Delta has a $470 yearly pass geared to frequent flyers.

One airline stands out for offering free Wi-Fi: JetBlue, which provides basic service at no charge. Passengers who want to stream video from YouTube or Netflix pay $9 an hour for a high-bandwidth connection.

Internet connectivity in midair is no mean feat. The company Gogo, the largest domestic provider of in-plane Wi-Fi, uses a ground-to-air network of cell towers aimed skyward across the U.S. Available on about 2,000 aircraft from eight carriers, this service is optimized for 10,000 feet and above. Gogo is also developing a hybrid ground-to-orbit service that uses cell towers and satellites, a system it says will increase Internet speed and coverage. Though it is unclear whether Gogo’s new Wi-Fi system will allow for gate-to-gate connectivity, the service is expected to roll out with Virgin toward the end of 2014.

To get the best devices to connect on the go, check our tablet, laptop, and smart phone buying guides.

Rather than a ground-based system, Southwest Airlines uses satellite-based broadband, which is available “gate to gate,” including during takeoffs and landings. The service is provided by Row 44. The telecommunications giant AT&T is also has plans to offer airlines high-speed Internet service through its expansive 4G LTE network by the end of 2015.

Despite the technical challenges, passengers seem reasonably satisfied with in-plane wireless. More than half the Wi-Fi users in our survey said they had no service interruptions, and 37 percent reported occasional glitches. Two out of three surfers said that the wireless service met all or most of their online needs.

But given that interruptions are fairly common, don’t expect flawless connectivity. Also avoid sharing financial and personal data onboard, because the connection isn’t a secure one. (Check our guide to Internet security for more tips and advice on staying safe online.) And finally, if more and more passengers start connecting, you could be in for slower speeds. 

The survey was conducted in March 2014 with subscribers to Consumer Reports online who own a smart phone, tablet, laptop, or Chromebook and who traveled within the last 12 months.

—Karim Lahlou

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