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How to avoid rising inflight wi-fi prices

Taking a ride on Gogo's inflight lab last year (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Taking a ride on Gogo’s inflight lab in Itasca, IL last year (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inflight wi-fi provider Gogo released statistics today showing that SFO has the highest percentage of passengers using its service, followed by New York JFK and then John Wayne/Orange County. LAX is the fourth most-connected. (See infographic below.)

It’s no surprise that airports located in coastal areas with a preponderance of longer transcontinental flights come out near the top of the list. It’s just not worth the hassle or the cost to break out the laptop or tablet on a flight under two hours. That’s why the poorest performers when it comes to wi-fi (such as Pensacola, Savannah or Akron) are small airports that primarily offer only short commuter flights to larger hubs where longer flights await.

In other Gogo news, the price to log-on onboard has jumped lately. Last week when flying between SFO and Atlanta, I noticed that the fee for a day pass purchased onboard had jumped to $26.95. Ouch! That’s a lot when you consider that Gogo competitor Row 44 only charges $8 per day  per device for inflight wifi on Southwest Airlines flights.

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When I tweeted about the surprise price increase, Gogo responded with the suggestion that frequent users purchase a $14 all day pass BEFORE they get onboard. That represents a significant savings, and will be something I do before every transcontinental flight in the future. Especially now that it seems that buying wi-fi at the last minute at overly bloated prices is like buying last-minute airline tickets at overly bloated prices.

What’s nice about the $14 day pass is that it’s good for 12 months on any Gogo-connected airline- so if you end up not using on one flight, you can use it later. For those with a heavy month of travel ahead, a monthly pass is available for $49.95. Gogo is also offering a three-pack for just $30 good for flights through the end of August. (Look for the “Summer sun 3-pack” on the Gogo home page.)

The key here is that Gogo obviously is pushing us to buy passes ahead of time instead of onboard. 

Are you a heavy user of inflight wi-fi? Does the availability of it influence your airline decision (hello, United!)? How much is too much to pay for the convenience of logging on on the fly? And finally, have you noticed any improvement is speed or connection using Gogo lately?

Please leave your comments below! 

-Chris McGinnis

Gogo most connected cities wifi

 

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How we use inflight wi-fi [Infographic]

Locations of Gogo's ground based antenna beaming wifi to planes (Chris McGinnis)

Locations of Gogo’s ground based antenna beaming wifi to planes (Chris McGinnis)

Bay Area Travelers (BATs) are lucky. Since the area’s technocratic elite demand wi-fi access on planes, most airlines offer the service on flights to/from Bay Area airports. Hometown carrier Virgin America offers it on all flights. Delta, the third largest carrier at SFO offers it on all domestic flights. United and American offer it on all their flights between SFO and New York JFK- but it’s hit or miss on other flights.

Southwest now has wi-fi on 75% of its fleet. United says that it should have 300 wi-fi equipped aircraft by the end of this year. JetBlue is talking about adding a newer, faster version of satellite based wi-fi and offering it for free to all passengers.

This week Gogo, the major purveyor of inflight wi-fi produced some interesting numbers around how we use their service- see below for an interesting infographic.

RELATED: Gogo to upgrade inflight wi-fi capacity. 

From Gogo:

When it comes to staying connected at 36,000 feet, tablets and smartphones now make up a whopping 67% of the devices being used to connect to Gogo. Tablets are the most preferred device at 35%, followed closely by laptops (33%) and smartphones (32%).

Apple devices are still reigning above the clouds, following the tablet trend with the iPad being the device of choice. Among all mobile devices being used to connect through Gogo, 84 percent carry Apple’s iOS operating system while 16 percent carry the Android operating system. If you look only at the smartphones our customers are using, the iPhone makes up 73 percent and all Android devices make up 26 percent, with Blackberry and Windows based devices each making up less than 1 percent of devices being used in air.

So, what are our passengers doing once they connect at 30,000 feet? It’s no surprise that general Web surfing ranked as the number one in air, online activity users want to do. Besides Web surfing, passengers spend their time in flight accessing personal email, engaging in social media, checking sports scores and shopping. Business travelers ranked accessing their work email and finalizing reports as the most frequent activity above the clouds. Passengers also utilize Gogo to explore their final destination’s weather, entertainment options and directions upon their arrival.

13GO_005_2013Infographic_v5 (2)

Gogo to upgrade inflight wi-fi capacity

Are you gaga for Gogo inflight wi-fi?

To me, Gogo’s introduction of in-flight wi-fi in 2008 was the greatest thing to happen to business travel since the invention of the jet engine. It has so transformed the flying experience that I now choose my airline based on whether or not it offers wi-fi on board—especially if the flight is longer than two hours.

But recently it seems that the more popular in-flight wi-fi gets, the more difficult is to get a good signal, especially on those long transcontinental flights when the service is most valuable. For example, on two out of three recent transcontinental flights, the signal was so weak or inconsistent that I complained to Gogo, which offered me two $18 credits for use on future flights.

Obviously, Gogo does not want to keep handing out freebies like that, so they’ve fattened the pipes to the plane with the introduction of a new higher capacity system called ATG 4, which is rolling out now on Delta, Virgin America and US Airways jets.

Gogo says the next generation system is capable of delivering a peak speed of 9.8 Mbps, which is three times faster than current standard of 3.1 on the first generation ATG. (ATG is short for “Air to ground.) Gogo is able to do this with the addition of three extra antennae (vs. only one before) and another modem plus a software upgrade.

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Gogo’s inflight internet lab (See slideshow for a look inside)

Earlier this week, Gogo invited me and a few travel and tech writers to its headquarters in Itasca, Il to check out the new ATG 4 system aboard its “jet-propelled internet lab” — a Challenger 600 jet flying out of the Aurora Municipal Airport near Chicago. (See slideshow above for photos)

Onboard the plush 9-seater, the back half of which was full or racks of equipment and cabling, I heard lots of techno babble about latency, megahertz, simulations, Rev A and Rev B, HSPA Mbps, ping tests and page loading. All way over my head.

All I cared about was whether or not I got a good signal—and on this flight I did—good enough to stream a two-minute YouTube video with only a few bumps for buffering, even though Gogo now discourages or even blocks access bandwidth hogging sites like Hulu or Netflix. But there were only nine passengers on board flying over the western suburbs of Chicago.

It remains to be seen what kind of signal I’ll get using ATG 4 the next time I’m flying over Colorado when half the plane is logged on.

Right now, there are only 25 jets that have the new ATG 4 system—out of a total of 1680 jets flying with Gogo onboard.  Gogo is not making a big deal about the upgrade on the plane- the only way you know you are on an upgraded one is by taking a good look at the plane parked at the gate—look for two fins on the underbelly (vs. just one on the bottom before) , and two directional antennae (bicycle helmet sized humps) on either side if the aircraft fuselage. (See slideshow above for a look at these fins)

Currently, installation of ATG 4 is ongoing on Delta, Virgin America and US Airways. Gogo expects to add it to United’s PS fleet and on American Airlines starting next year.

Here are a few extra newsy nuggets I picked up on my visit to Gogo HQ and the test flight:

>There are currently 173 ground-based Gogo transmitters mounted on celluar towers in the continental US and southern Alaska that beam up a signal within a 250 mile radius. (See slideshow for a map of towers.)

>Gogo is adding and upgrading its transmitters fastest in the Midwest—which is where most complaints about weak signal occur.

>A Gogo system onboard a plane consists of two large toaster-sized black metal boxes mounted in the belly, two or three routers (about the size of the one you may have in your house) that are placed in the ceiling of the aircraft to evenly distribute the wi-fi signal among passengers, and lots of cabling. Total added weight is about 150 lbs. (See slideshow to see what it looks like)

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>The new ATG 4 system can handle about 65 passengers logged on simultaneously—the current max is about half that. This means that overload problems are more likely on larger planes flying on longer routes- for example, both of my poor connection experiences occurred on 250-seat Delta 767s.

>Remember when Google sponsored free inflight during the holidays in 2009? So many users logged on that systems crashed and complaints soared. Gogo says that after that, freebie promos have been (and will continue to be) limited to short 15 minute test periods only.

>While overall in-flight wi-fi usage stats sound low (at around 5%), Virgin America says that usage runs as high as 40% on transcontinental flights, especially those between San Francisco and New York (natch).

What’s been your experience with in-flight wi-fi? Are you a heavy user like me? Have you experienced connectivity issues? Would you rather spend your time on board reading or gazing out the window? Please leave your comments below.

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Coming soon to a flight near you: video streaming

JetBlue announced this week that it will (finally) offer a new, faster satellite-based inflight wi-fi product starting in early 2013. (Currently, JetBlue does not offer inflight wi-fi at all.)

JetBlue (with flights between SFO and Oakland to destinations such as Long Beach, Austin, Ft Lauderdale, New York, Washington and Boston) says that the new service from Live TV and ViaSat (not Gogo) will be fast enough to allow streaming of movies in-flight.  On its blog, JetBlue is promising that every passenger on the plane will be able to log on and have an “at-home experience” in terms of speed. The carrier offered no firm date for the launch, only promising “early 2013.” In an unusual twist, it says it will offer the service for free until the first 30 planes get it. After that, it will offer a tiered product, with a free basic connection, but charges for more bandwidth.

Not to be outdone by JetBlue, Delta says that it, too will offer the option of streaming movies and TV shows using inflight wi-fi on all 800 of its domestic two-class aircraft “by the end of 2013.” Delta currently provides Gogo wi-fi on its entire domestic fleet.

In related news, Canadian regulators have given the greelight to Gogo to get started on extending its ground-based network north of the US border. Service should be available starting in 2013.

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With SF-based Virgin America offering wi-fi on 100% of its flights, plus Delta, United and American providing it on all SFO>JFK flights, Bay Area Travelers (BATS!) are pretty spoiled. Such ubiquity is not the case elsewhere, and in fact, only 31% of domestic flights (1,165 aircraft) in the US have it. At Southwest, 35% of planes have it; 22% of American Airlines planes have it, and at United, the largest carrier in the world (and at SFO), only 1% of its flights have it, according to Business Travel News.

What is surprising is that usage of inflight wi-fi on the planes that offer it is miniscule—just a scant 5.4% on average for the first half of 2012 according to Gogo. I think that number is low because most flights are so short that it does not make sense to log on in-flight. But anyone who flies across the country frequently has witnessed a much higher usage rate- on some of those SFO-JFK flights sometimes it seems that the whole plane is logged on… and speed suffers as a result.  So all these promises of faster products are heartening.

Whether it is land-based or satellite-based,  the availability of wi-fi is THE deciding factor when I’m chosing an airline for flights longer than three hours. What about you? How important is in-flight wi-fi in your airline decision? Will you fly JetBlue more often if it comes through on its promise of a superfast in-flight wi-fi experience? Do we really need to stream video in-flight? Please leave your comments below.

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Welcome new readers! If this information was helpful to you, please subscribe to The BAT via e-mail- and tell your friends about it, too!

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