Flying is terrible, but at least the WiFi is getting better

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Your flight may be delayed. Your bags could get lost. You definitely won’t have as much leg room as you would like. But one thing usually improves when it comes to air travel: the ability to connect to the Internet.

Some airlines are rolling out the service for the first time. Others are committed to modernizing their fleet by the end of the year. Some major carriers have experimented with free connectivity, while others have dropped their prices significantly.

“As they bring the next generation of technology into aircraft, they can do it in a way that’s cheaper for the consumer and more reliable as well, which is sort of a win-win,” said Seth Miller. , an inflight entertainment and connectivity analyst and publisher of airline industry news site PaxEx.aero.

Historically, passengers have complained that the Wi-Fi available on planes was slow, unreliable and outrageously expensive. Airlines have been working with providers on improvements for years, especially as streaming demands from travelers have increased.

The pandemic and supply chain issues have presented a hurdle in some cases, Miller said, but major carriers including Delta and Southwest are moving forward with widespread upgrades this year. That’s good news for the millions of travelers who are back in the skies every week, sometimes surpassing pre-pandemic numbers.

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“There are more people flying now, more data-intensive devices, more data-intensive applications,” said Don Buchman, vice president and general manager of commercial aviation at the connectivity provider. Viasat satellite. “And when you get that push towards some sort of new business model – like free – you’re going to see a lot more uptake.”

He added: “So you have to be able to meet that demand.” For his company, that means launching a constellation of high-capacity satellites starting this fall.

The latest airline development came in May from Southwest, which announced WiFi upgrades to its existing fleet. The company said new hardware from its longtime supplier Anuvu will be able to deliver “significant improvement” in speed and bandwidth, with around 350 aircraft upgraded by the end of October.

Southwest planes that come online in the fall will have “high-quality internet” and live TV programming under a deal with another provider, Viasat, the company said. airline company. Southwest passengers need good connectivity to be entertained during flights; the airline does not have seat screens.

“We are investing in our onboard connectivity and the bandwidth available to each customer with upgraded technology now moving into our existing fleet, a strategy to diversify our WiFi providers during upcoming aircraft deliveries and plugging Southwest customers into headquarters power to keep them. charged while in the air,” Ryan Green, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Southwest, said in a statement.

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This followed Hawaiian Airlines’ announcement in April of the introduction of free high-speed internet through an agreement with Starlink, SpaceX’s internet service. Installation is expected to begin next year and the airline promises passengers will be able to use Wi-Fi for activities such as streaming, gaming, working and posting to social media.

“We’ve waited for technology to catch up to our high standards for customer experience, but it will be worth it,” Hawaiian Airlines CEO Peter Ingram said in a statement.

Delta confirmed in March that nearly all domestic aircraft it owns and operates (not regional carriers) will have Wi-Fi “like what you would find at home” by the end of 2022 as part of a one-year upgrade.

“The new Wi-Fi on Delta is faster and more reliable than ever,” Glenn Latta, Delta’s general manager of inflight connectivity, said in a statement. “We’ve put this connection through countless tests and scrutinized every detail to ensure customers experience speed and reliability that exceeds their expectations.”

Delta began charging $5 per flight per device last June on planes equipped with Viasat-enabled WiFi. The airline said last year that its investment in new technology was a step towards offering free Wi-Fi.

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The $5 price is lower than most other carriers — with the exception of JetBlue, which offers the service for free — but several other airlines have also lowered their prices. United now charges $8 for connectivity on domestic and short-haul international routes for frequent flyer members; non-members pay $10. This spring, Alaska Airlines began charging $8 for what it calls “fast streaming” satellite Wi-Fi, which covers 80% of its fleet this spring. Similarly, connecting to Southwest costs $8.

American Airlines is running a trial on its Viasat-equipped planes that allows passengers to watch an ad for a “sample” of free WiFi – a session lasting around 15 to 30 minutes. Passengers can also pay for a longer session as usual. The ongoing trial “will help us determine our future offerings,” the airline said.

Buchman said he expects to see more airlines move to some level of free service over the next 12 months; several already offer free WiFi compatible messaging.

“It’s a pretty big demand, especially coming out of the pandemic; being connected is a comfort,” he said. “What I see and hear is that I think you’re going to start to see a cavalcade towards this.”

For his part, Miller said he’s having conversations with airlines about whether travelers would be happy with quality, reliable, and affordable WiFi, even if it’s not yet free.

“Maybe that’s, in fact, enough,” he said.

He warns that consumers should not yet expect to have a seamless connection on every flight. As airlines exploit available satellite capacity and improve aircraft technology, Miller said, more than 1,000 regional jets have older, slower configurations.

“It’s a constant cycle of trying to make the system consistent for consumers,” he said. “And it’s a losing battle for airlines because you can’t instantly make every plane the same. There will always be a period when some planes are new and good and some aren’t.”

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