Laptops

High-Speed Internet on a Plane: Where to Find It

After years of fits and starts, Wi-Fi on airplanes is finally taking off. I've had the pleasure of staying connected to the Internet from San Francisco to New York, and I highly recommend the experience.

At the moment, however, in-flight wireless Internet access is far from ubiquitous. And it can be difficult to determine in advance if a flight you're considering has the service. For example, American Airlines currently offers Wi-Fi on some of its MD-80 aircraft, but not all. When you're booking your flight at American's Web site, there's no way to tell if a particular flight offers wireless access.

This is true for many airline Web sites, except for those like Virgin America, which offers in-flight Wi-Fi onboard all flights. The reason is that when Wi-Fi is only on some planes within a certain aircraft type (like American Airlines' MD-80s), the airline may need to switch planes on a route at the last minute for mechanical or other reasons. When an airline promises Wi-Fi on that flight and then can't deliver, they've likely disappointed at least a subset of that flight's passengers before the plane even takes off.

U.S. Airlines Offering In-Flight Wi-Fi

Here's a snapshot of in-flight wireless Internet access aboard the major U.S. carriers.

Airtran now offers Aircell's Gogo in-flight Internet access service on its entire fleet of Boeing 717s and Boeing 737s.

Alaska Airlines has been testing Row 44's service on one Boeing 737-700 aircraft. As of this writing, the airline had not announced plans for extending the service to additional planes.

American Airlines has installed Gogo on all 15 of its Boeing 767-200 aircraft, on certain flights between New York's JFK and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami, and between Los Angeles and Miami. American is currently expanding Gogo to its domestic fleet of 150 MD-80s. Next year, the airline will add Gogo to its Boeing 737 fleet.

Continental Airlines has not yet installed wireless Internet access on any of its planes, according to a spokesperson. The airline is currently evaluating its options as well as gauging what customers want and are willing to pay for.

Delta Airlines does an excellent job keeping the public updated about the status of its Wi-Fi rollout through weekly blog updates. Recently, Delta's blog reported that 205 of its planes had Gogo on board, with 700 or more "wireless" flights every day. About 63.5 percent of "the premerger Delta domestic mainline fleet" now how Wi-Fi. The type of aircraft equipped with Wi-Fi are also listed, which includes Boeing 767-300, Boeing 757-200, MD88, and MD90. According to the Delta blog, the remainder of Delta's domestic fleet will have Wi-Fi installed "by the fall." The pre-merger Northwest planes will have wireless onboard by next summer.

JetBlue currently only has one aircraft, an Airbus A320 dubbed "BetaBlue," equipped with Wi-Fi via LiveTV. JetBlue plans to extend the service to 20 additional A320 planes beginning this year. The Wi-Fi service is limited to e-mail, instant messaging, and shopping on Amazon.com but is free, says a spokesperson.

Southwest has four Boeing 737s equipped with Row44 Wi-Fi on a trial basis. The airline hasn't announced plans to extend the service as of this writing.

United Airlines is scheduled to offer Gogo beginning this fall on 13 of its Boeing 757 aircraft flying between JFK and Los Angeles and JFK-San Francisco. The airline hasn't announced any further rollout.

US Airways says Gogo will be installed on 50 of its Airbus A321 planes by early 2010.

Virgin America has rolled out the Gogo service to its entire fleet.

The Wrap-Up

It's worth knowing which airlines offer Wi-Fi, and on what type of aircraft you might find it. If you want to stay current on the latest developments, keep an eye on the news pages of the leading in-flight Wi-Fi provider Aircell (which links flyers to the Internet via EV-DO towers on the ground) and competitor Row 44 (which is satellite-based).

Keep in mind that most airlines charge for in-flight Wi-Fi. Example: Aircell's Gogo (offered on Air Tran, American, Delta, United, US Airways, and Virgin America) is $6 for a single flight up to about 1.5 hours, $10 for a single flight between 1.5 and 3 hours, and $13 for a flight over 3 hours. You can also get a 24-hour pass ($13) or a 30-day pass ($50), or use the service on a mobile device such as a Wi-Fi enabled smart phone ($8 for a single flight over 1.5 hours).

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Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. You can follow him on Twitter. Jim is also the coauthor of Getting Organized in the Google Era, to be published in March 2010. Sign up to have Mobile Computing e-mailed to you each week.

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