You're boarding a plane to attend an important meeting, when you suddenly realize you forgot to include a graph critical to the report your going to present. You keep your fingers crossed that you'll have access to Wi-Fi during the flight.
Whether you do or don't depends on which airline you're using. Also, having Wi-Fi is one thing, but having quality Wi-Fi on a plane is entirely different.
Cost also is a consideration, especially if you're on a plane with a slow or patchy connection. If Wi-Fi access is important to you, make sure to check your airline's capabilities and cost.
In-flight Wi-Fi providers
There are two major companies that provide the technology that makes Wi-Fi internet on commercial airlines possible: GoGo and ViaSat.
GoGo has 51% of the market share in North America and contracts with 17 commercial airlines. ViaSat covers military and commercial markets. Last year, it appeared that ViaSat was going to make a dent in GoGo's market share after winning a contract to equip Wi-Fi access to American Airlines’ new fleet of Boeing 737 MAX. However, in May the planes were grounded worldwide due to safety issues.
The 3 best airlines for quality Wi-Fi
Boeing's problems notwithstanding, these are what reviewers say are the top three airlines for Wi-Fi access, based on in-flight Wi-Fi internet access, the number of miles the connection covers, price, payment options and customer reviews.
Topping the list is JetBlue, which this year became the first airline to offer free Wi-Fi on all flights. The company calls the free service Fly-Fi, and passengers have access to it from the second they get on the plane until the aircraft lands.
In addition, JetBlue has partnered with Amazon to allow passengers to stream music or movies or buy products on the site. In exchange, JetBlue gives passengers three TrueBlue points for every dollar spent on Amazon. The points can be redeemed for JetBlue flights or donated to charitable causes.
There's only one downside -- and considering everything else it offers it's a minor one -- JetBlue's FlyFi service is available only in the lower 48 states.
Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines uses GoGo’s 2Ku satellite-based system for speeds of about 100 Mbps per plane. In theory, more than 30 people could simultaneously be watching Netflix and no one would experience any slowdowns.
As with Virgin America, you have to pay for Delta's Wi-Fi access. Passengers have to buy a Delta Wi-Fi Pass. About $20 gets you an hour of service on a laptop or tablet. For around $40 you have access for throughout the duration of the flight. Delta’s in-flight Wi-Fi portal is free, but likely isn't high speed or lasts many miles.
Southwest's Wi-Fi is $8 a day per device (so, unlike GoGo, you can't buy access and use it across devices). If you're an A-List Preferred member, you get it free. Reviewers give Southwest pretty high marks for speed and reliability.
Worst airlines for Wi-Fi?
So who gets the prize for the worst airline for in-flight Wi-Fi access? American Airlines.
True, American was GoGo's first customer, but the company hasn't done much with its access. The carrier uses outdated ATG-4 technology that delivers only 9.8 Mbps per plane. Despite that, the company charges about $50 plus tax for a monthly subscription. For an all-day pass you pay $16 plus tax.
American Airline's isn't alone. United Airlines' CEO told an ABCNews interviewer that the airline has had a hard time finding a reliable in-flight Wi-Fi provider. Apparently, they use several providers, which could be why their connections are hit and miss. CEO Oscar Munoz says Wi-Fi is very important to its customers, and the company is working to find a better solution.
Pro tip: If you pay for in-flight Wi-Fi and you aren't able to use it, save your receipt. The provider should be able to check your receipt, see that you didn't use any of your time, and they may give you a credit for the next time you fly (it worked when we tried it with American Airlines and GoGo Inflight).
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