The ability to get work done on a computer or posting to Facebook while in flight is rapidly becoming a reality for American fliers.
Now travelers have a decent chance of staying connected with onboard wireless Internet service on about two-thirds of the miles they fly on U.S. carriers, according to a study released Monday.
Availability of WiFi is rapidly increasing on planes big and small, according to the study by Routehappy, which rates flights on their amenities for passengers. But the quality of the WiFi connection and how much it costs continues to vary widely.
And despite all the talk of staying connected at 30,000 feet and WiFi being a must-have feature for airlines, passengers are mostly unwilling to pay for the connection. Just 6.7 percent of passengers use WiFi when it’s available, or 10 people on a plane of 150, according to financial reports of Itasca-based Gogo, the largest provider of in-flight WiFi in the U.S.
“We all want Wi-Fi, but it’s been pretty much proven that people won’t pay for it,” said Joe Brancatelli, a business travel writer and founder of JoeSentMe.com. “That said, I can’t see a future without WiFi on every airplane.
“It’s a strange conundrum.”
Still, 2014 marked the year WiFi availability took off, Routehappy said. It found fliers worldwide have at least some chance of WiFi on about 24 percent of the miles they fly.
“When you consider the sheer number of flights on a global scale and the number of airlines around the world, that’s a pretty substantial number,” said Jason Rabinowitz, data research manager at Routehappy.
That rate is markedly higher among U.S. airlines, which offer at least “some” chance of WiFi on 66 percent of the miles they fly, the study found. Routehappy defines “some chance” as up to one-third of a given fleet being equipped with WiFi. Chances of having WiFi increase dramatically with larger planes, called mainline aircraft, 82 percent of which have WiFi in the U.S.
The rapid growth is thanks in large part to Gogo’s land-based network providing the connections in the U.S., Rabinowitz said. More advanced systems are satellite-based, including those by Gogo, and capable of offering WiFi on international flights and over water.
Among U.S. carriers, Routehappy found that Delta Air Lines, an early adopter, offers by far the most flights with WiFi, with Southwest Airlines and Virgin America rating highly for the percentage of flights offering the service.
United has been a laggard but is ramping up, adding the service at a faster pace than any other airline over the past 18 months, the study showed. It already has the most international planes with WiFi and offers what Routehappy describes as the best quality WiFi, capable of streaming video.
American Airlines offers “better” Wi-Fi – akin to 4G smartphone data speeds – on its entire Airbus narrow body fleet, which equates to 300 planes. It, too, is quickly adding the service and announced in December it would be adding WiFi to 250 of its regional jets.
“In the United States, we see almost all mainline and even larger regional aircraft will be outfitted with WiFi relatively soon,” Rabinowitz said. “2014 was really the hump domestic airlines got over in offering WiFi.”
The airlines’ business case for Wi-Fi is murky, with so few passengers willing to pay for it and likely no airlines profiting from it.
Although a survey last summer by Honeywell Aerospace, which makes WiFi connection equipment, showed that in-flight WiFi availability influences flight selection for 66 percent of passengers, and nearly 1 in 4 said they’ve paid more for a flight with WiFi.
Instead of being a moneymaker, WiFi has, at least in part, became a marketing tool to differentiate airlines, Brancatelli said. “Delta has used it to beat United over the head,” he said. That advantage will vanish as more airlines offer it.
Quality might be an issue.
Some passengers who tried in-flight WiFi might have been turned off by its unreliability and sluggish speeds offered by earlier-technology. “In the skies on most days, it’s the equivalent of dial-up,” Brancatelli said.
But newer systems, available on just 1 percent of flights now, according to Routehappy, are capable of accommodating more passengers on the flight and at video-streaming speeds, he said. United and JetBlue are examples of airlines rolling out that type of WiFi.
“We are seeing much higher capacity and higher bandwidth systems,” Rabinowitz said.