NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Next time you climb aboard a domestic flight you will face a pointed choice. You can choose to stay offline - or you can pay money to access the Internet. That might seem a no brainer but hold on. If you pay, are you in fact getting value for money? Is now the time to start saying, no thanks?
What a difference seven years make. When inflight Internet showed up in 2008, it was viewed as a miracle, the exact thing we had all been waiting for to turn inflight ennui into entertainment, maybe even productive work hours. Now what we hear is sharply different. The headline on a January story by New York Times reporter Nick Bilton sums it up: “The Sorry State of In-Flight WiFi.” In the story Bilton kvetches: “It’s so slow and unreliable that it shouldn’t be allowed to call itself ‘Wi-Fi.’ Renaming it Airplane Dial-Up would be unfair to dial-up.”
Is it that bad? Has it become a waste of our money? On that latter score, know that inflight WiFi is not cheap. Fly where industry leader GoGo has the contract, and prices range from $5 for an hour of access to $16 for an all day pass on the same airline (which can include multiple flights). GoGo carriers include Alaska, American, Delta, United, USAirways and Virgin America. Note: These prices are for sessions booked on the GoGo website prior to travel. Wait to buy until you are in the air, and you will pay more.
Book onboard Virgin America, for instance, and the tab - on a cross-country flight - can go as high as $34.95.
On Southwest, which uses Row44 as a provider, the fare is $8 per day per device.
On JetBlue, a two-tier pricing model prevails. “Simply Surf” is free, and it is aimed at fliers who want email access and other basics. Crave more speed? The premium “Fly-Fi plus” costs $9 per hour; it is said to offer “true” broadband. On a coast to coast flight, that can add up to $50+ just for WiFi.
Back up? How did inflight go from being a miracle to being pilloried? What has changed with inflight WiFi is that its popularity may be strangling it. Five years ago, comparatively few used it, because it seemed exotic. But year on year, more users go online, and the upshot is that everybody goes slower. A lot of users now report frequently getting kicked off congested inflight networks. Others relate that downloading email with attachments that would scarcely register on a broadband connection can literally take minutes to download online. On board a Delta flight from Atlanta to Aruba, small businessman Keith Miller emailed Mainstreet some photos to as a test; he reported it took a good five minutes for the images to render and have the email send successfully.
Know too that, by design, there is lots you won’t be permitted to do online at 35,000 feet. No Skype. No Netflix. No watching live sporting events. Almost always such bandwidth intensive access is blocked by the provider.
Which brings us back to your choices. To connect or not?
Travel blogger Joe Brancatelli, who posts at JoeSentMe.com, snorted: “Whenever I pay for it I dislike it...but, free, it is O.K.” He also said the quality of service is “very hit or miss.” That is, on some flights the connection soars, on others it is a dud, and there’s really no predicting which you will get before you log in and pay up.
Blogger Chris McGinnis, who writes at TravelSkills.com, said that he always signs onto inflight Internet. He explained: “Since I run an online business, it's essential for me to connect nearly all the time, so I'm happy to pay for inflight WiFi, even if it's a tenuous connection. What I really don't like is when the WiFi does not work at all, but I find that only infrequently.”
Financial services executive Chris LaConte said that on the flights he takes - almost always Delta - “bandwidth for email and business uses is fine. Streaming is difficult. Sometimes you need a video - it just doesn’t happen.” He added: “If it’s for work, I can justify the expense. Not really when it is personal.”
That’s the secret. Inflight WiFi usually works for lightweight online business tasks such as reading email, checking a calendar, maybe scanning short articles in an online publication. If you could comfortably do it on an aged 3G cellular network - today’s common 4G is said to be four to ten times faster - inflight WiFi probably suffices.
And, you know, grumbles aside, it remains a joy to get off a long flight unencumbered by an electronic barrage. Instead of being greeted with the thudding arrival of dozens of emails that demand answering, now you see an empty email box. For me, that sound of silence is enough to pay the freight.
—Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet