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TravelHaven News Brief – Wi-Fi in the Sky

Bob Tedeschi in his recent article in the New York Times – ” Trying Out Wi-Fi in the Sky” – provided a lot of information for those interested in using such service.

In-flight Wi-Fi is not yet commonly available, but many U.S. airlines are upgrading their fleets to provide the service. At present, almost one-third of their approximately 2,800 planes have been equipped with Wi-Fi, according to Aircell, which has equipped most such aircraft in the U.S.

Lufthansa is generally acknowledged as the first airline operating in the United States to offer Wi-Fi, which it did through Boeing’s Connexion service, starting in 2003, although that service shut down in 2006, Aircell’s Gogo service is used by all domestic U.S. carriers, with the exception of a single Southwest Airlines plane using a new Wi-Fi competitor, Row 44.

The connection process is fast and relatively simple, no matter what device or which service is used, connecting to the Internet follows the same process: log on, open an account and type in your credit card numbers. This involves a lot of typing, so a laptop was far more convenient than using a smartphone. But Aircell indicates that they are streamlining the process to save time for non-laptop users.

The general rule is that passengers can connect at 10,000 feet, or about 20 minutes into the flight. Slow downloads or lost connections are rarely reported. Both Gogo and Row 44 services provide comparable speed and stability; both companies enable airlines to block pornographic sites and all do. The service automatically shuts down during descent.

That said, Gogo, users downloading huge amounts of high-definition video have their connection cycle off after a certain period, depending on the number of users online. That’s Gogo’s way of keeping the network performing smoothly for everyone on the plane. Row 44 puts no such constraints on passengers.

You can save some expense with a Wi-Fi-enabled mobile device like the iPhone or Droid. Airlines will charge lower fees for such devices than a smartphone or laptop without Wi-Fi. Row 44 has not yet set prices, but airlines using Gogo all charge the same fees. Passengers with laptops, iPads and netbooks pay $5 for 90 minutes, $10 for three hours, and $13 for more than three hours. Those using Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices pay the same $5 for under 90 minutes, but only $8 for anything beyond that. A one-day pass is $13, no matter what device you have, and a one-month pass is $15 for Wi-Fi users with mobile devices, and $40 for laptops. If you don’t have your own device, airlines are not yet providing one.

Delta is the domestic carrier with the greatest number of Wi-Fi-enabled planes, nearly all its 500 planes offering the service. More than half of the American fleet has Gogo installed, including 150 MD-80 aircraft and 15 of its 767-200s. AirTran’s entire fleet is Wi-Fi-enabled, as are the craft used for longer flights on US Airways. On United, Gogo is available on 13 planes flying between New York and San Francisco and between New York and Los Angeles. Virgin America’s entire fleet of 28 planes has the service, and Alaska Airways will follow suit by the end of the year.

Since Connexion shut down in 2006, Wi-Fi service has been pretty much nonexistent. Oman Air offers in-flight Wi-Fi, charging based on data transmitted. Air Canada offers Gogo wireless service on just two flights. Lufthansa plans to restart its Wi-Fi service but has offered no details.

Figuring out whether your domestic flight offers the service may involve some digging. Of course, Virgin America and AirTran offer Wi-Fi on every plane. American posts a “Wi-Fi” icon with the online flight information 24 hours before a flight. US Airways and United use similar symbols at the time of booking. Delta has no such notification methods.

Southwest sends an e-mail message to passengers if they draw aircraft No. 910, the fleet’s only Wi-Fi-enabled plane. The company will establish a more standard notification method when more Wi-Fi-equipped planes join the fleet this summer.

One thing that won’t vary among airlines with Wi-Fi is their policies about using Skype. While other countries are permissive regarding cellphone chatter on airplanes, carriers in the United States don’t think other passengers will accept such chatter at high altitude and block such technologies.