The Sad State of Inflight WiFi aka Bring a Book

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

It was 10 years ago that you probably first experienced inflight WiFi and if you are like me you remember that moment with delight.  GoGo rolled out WiFi to a handful of flights on a handful of carriers (American Airlines, Virgin America, Delta, Air Canada, Air Tran Airways and United) in 2009 and, pretty soon, I was picking flights based upon my guess about WiFi availability.

How cool was it to email at 30,000 feet? Very. And, honestly, the speeds just didn’t seem slow back then – in part because users were few.

Meantime, think about today where there’s WiFi in coffee shops, homes, fast food restaurants and – you know what? – it is pretty much ubiquitous. In Phoenix there’s even free WiFi on the lightrail ($4 to ride all day), just about every coffee shop offers it, and so do apartment house lobbies, doctors waiting rooms, and I could on on.

Where we are, WiFi is.

Except on airplanes.

Let’s put aside the issue of how bad – slow, overpriced, unreliable – inflight WiFi has become. There also very real issues around security (or lack thereof), where everybody from crooks to government agencies may be eavesdropping on your keystrokes. We’ll get to that momentarily.

For now what grabs me is that WiFi is very far from ubiquitous inflight – indeed odds are that any given seat will not have WiFi, according to a report from Routehappy. That report says that 43%
of available seat miles (ASMs) worldwide have at least a chance of Wi-Fi on board. Note that hedge – at least a chance. That’s because many planes claim WiFi but it may not in fact be actually working.

That 43% is up from 39% last year – which highlights the slow pace of upgrades.

This means 57% of seats have zero chance of providing WiFi.

US carriers are better than the rest, per Routehappy: “U.S. airlines offer at least a chance of Wi-Fi on 86% of their ASMs, with 85% of ASMs fully rolled out.”  It added: “Non-U.S. airlines offer at least a chance of Wi-Fi on 32% of their ASMs, up by 14% from the 2017 report.”

Now chew on this: “Three carriers now offer Wi-Fi on 100% of their flights: Icelandair, Southwest, and Virgin Atlantic.”  That means many, many dozens don’t. By Routehappy’s count, 82 airlines globally offer WiFi, so that means 79 don’t offer it on all flights.

A morsel of good news is that “13 airlines globally offer Wi-Fi on 100% of long-haul flights: Air Europa, Delta, Emirates, Etihad, Eurowings, EVA Air, Iberia, Kuwait, Lufthansa, SAS, Scoot, United, and Virgin Atlantic.”

Another morsel: “While passengers have come to expect Wi-Fi on large global airlines, many smaller airlines have now begun offering Wi-Fi as well. Air Astana from Kazakhstan, Air Côte d’Ivoire from Ivory Coast, and Air Mauritius from Mauritius are just a few of the numerous smaller airlines that began offering Wi-Fi in 2017.”

Nonetheless, the bad news is that when flying overseas, you have a better than even chance of not having WiFi access.

Despite the rising global ubiquity of WiFi.

Routehappy, by the way, holds out hope for the disgruntled passengers – myself often among them – who no longer even try to use inflight WiFi.  My usual preference is to read a book on my iPad – and I carefully insure the books I want to access are downloaded before I leave for the airport.

At most I will do a fast email session inflight.  But not usually.

But there are glimmers of hope that our increasingly loud kvetching about WiFi quality will be dealt with by the carriers. Said Routehappy: “Best Wi-Fi is now available on 16% of ASMs worldwide, representing a staggering 129% increase from the 2017 report.”  

It defines “Best WiFi” this way: “Fastest Wi-Fi systems currently available, capable of advanced media streaming (whether allowed by airline or not); comparable to a home connection.”

That is good news on first glance but on second what it says is 84% of ASMs don’t have “best WiFi.”

In the 2017 Routehappy report, by the way, it noted that 6% of flights offered “best WiFi.”

There has been progress in bringing “best WiFi” to more passengers globally – but not a lot, not really.

And airlines plan to get us viewing movies and such on this “Best” WiFi – and how good is your cable connection at home when you try to stream a movie on Friday night?

Right.

Don’t expect better even from “Best” WiFi on long, packed flights.  I know I’m not. I saw the drop in inflight quality circa 2012 as more of us discovered it and started using it. Similar will befall “Best” WiFi and it will surely deteriorate.

That’s why for now I’ll stick with my plan to read books on my iPad, maybe make notes in my paper calendar-planner.

How 1999.

But has anything really changed?

1 thought on “The Sad State of Inflight WiFi aka Bring a Book”

  1. The thing I use is the “inflight wi-fi” that connects me to the onboard server for in-house movies, tv shows etc. As far as this is concerned, I can use my own device, my own headphones, and my iPad works a lot more reliably than most seat back entertainment systems. Besides the amount of weight that the seat back entertainment systems use, they also glare at you even in the dark since most people dont dim them even when they aren’t in use. I can understand why airlines have gone this route for in flight entertainment. As to connecting this “in flight wi fi” to the internet, I don’t do that much. I could see using it if they had it in overseas business class, where there is extra time and extra space, but domestic, it isn’t so useful to me. As far as the statements about “wi fi everywhere we go” on the ground, a significant percentage of it is useless either because it is too slow, or not well maintained. The other issue is places like New Orleans airport, where they want to install an app on your phone in order to give you free internet – or serve you a lot of ads. The New Orleans Airport wi-fi is something I’ve found useless and annoying. It doesn’t help much that their mobile coverage is not that rich either. I was stranded in two airports during December for weather and the difference, both internet and facilities wise, is like night and day. Please note that I have been to New Orleans more than just during the storm, and I have found their connectivity to never be good. Vancouver, on the other hand, had wonderful facilities, 50 megs download on the internet (that worked all over the place) and 124 megs upload. Perfect side by side examples of how to run an airport (Vancouver) and how not to run one (New Orleans). I look forward to the day when wi-fi is the way it should be, but we have a ways to go yet, both on the ground and in the air.

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