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Trying out Wi-Fi in the skies

Most domestic airlines have been upgrading fleets to offer Wi-Fi more widely, to the point where nearly one-third of the roughly 2,800 aircraft in the passenger fleet are equipped.
/ Source: The New York Times

I was about halfway through a cross-country flight from San Francisco to New York when I made a Skype call to my wife, Karen.

Yes, a Skype call. No, it didn’t last long.

“Hi, honey!”

“Hey! Where are you?” she replied.

“Over the Rockies I think.”

“Is everything O.K.?”

The Internet connection to my laptop went dead, and it occurred to me that she might have thought something was wrong on the flight, if I were risking what she believed was a cellphone call. I quickly tried using Skype again but failed.

I sent a quick e-mail message letting her know I was playing with Virgin America’s in-flight Wi-Fi system, and we spent the next half hour sending instant messages. I followed that up with a few solid hours of e-mailing and online research, with some detours through Facebook, YouTube and

It was like a normal day at work, in other words, but for the fact that I was at high altitude, and being served food by cheery flight attendants. I left the flight feeling that the $10 Wi-Fi charge was well worth it, even with the Skype glitch.

In-flight Wi-Fi is not yet a commodity, but it is no longer a rarity. Most domestic airlines have been upgrading their fleets to offer the service more widely, to the point where nearly one-third of the roughly 2,800 aircraft in the nation’s passenger fleet are equipped with Wi-Fi, according to Aircell, the company that equips most of the Wi-Fi-enabled planes in the United States.

If you travel on planes a lot and plan to use Wi-Fi frequently, you can shave some expense from the process if you have a Wi-Fi-enabled mobile device like an iPhone or Droid, which incur lower charges than the fees charged by airlines if you use a smartphone or laptop without Wi-Fi. If you don’t have your own device, airlines are not yet providing one.

But no matter what device you use, the connection process is fast and usually pain free.

Among the better-known airlines operating in the United States, Lufthansa is generally acknowledged as the first to offer Wi-Fi, which it did through Boeing’s Connexion service, starting in 2003.

While Connexion shut down in 2006, Aircell’s Gogo service steadily gained traction with domestic United States carriers so that now, of all the domestic aircraft currently offering Wi-Fi, all but one carry Gogo service. The exception is a single Southwest Airlines plane (so far) that might signal the entry of a new Wi-Fi competitor, Row 44.

Connecting to the Internet during a flight is the same, no matter which service you use. You log on, open an account and type in your credit card numbers. On the flights during which I tested Gogo, the process involved a lot of typing, so connecting through a laptop was far more convenient than doing it through a smartphone. But Michael Small, Aircell’s chief executive, said that the company is streamlining the process so that non-laptop users can save time.

The few times I used the service in the past year, all on Virgin America, I experienced no lost connections or slow downloads. The general rule is that you can connect at 10,000 feet, or about 20 minutes into the flight; the service automatically shuts down during the descent.

Gogo and Row 44 executives said that their services operate with roughly the same speed and stability. And both companies allow airlines to block pornographic sites. (All carriers do.)

But some passengers may notice a more unfettered surfing experience with Row 44. On Gogo, users who try to download huge amounts of high-definition video will lose their connection after a certain amount of time, depending on how many users are online. Mr. Small, Aircell’s chief executive, said that is Gogo’s way of keeping the network performing smoothly for everyone on the plane.

Row 44, however, puts no such constraints on passengers, so if you want to download high-definition video continuously for the entire flight, you may.

All of Gogo’s airline partners charge the same prices for those with laptops, iPads and netbooks: $5 to connect for 90 minutes, $10 for three hours, and $13 for more than three hours. Passengers with Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices pay the same $5 for under 90 minutes, but they pay $8 for anything beyond that. A one-day pass is $13, no matter what device you have, and a one-month pass is $15 for Wi-Fi users with mobile devices, and $40 for laptops.

Row 44 has not yet set prices.

The domestic carrier with the greatest number of Wi-Fi-enabled planes is Delta, with nearly all its 500 planes offering the service. American has installed Gogo on more than half its fleet, including 150 MD-80 aircraft and 15 of its 767-200s. AirTran’s entire fleet is Wi-Fi-enabled, as are planes used for longer flights on US Airways.

On United, Gogo is on 13 planes that fly the routes between New York and San Francisco and between New York and Los Angeles. Continental, which last month said it would merge with United, has none.

Virgin America’s entire fleet of 28 planes has the service, and Alaska Airways will follow suit by the end of the year.

Unfortunately, if you are flying internationally with a Wi-Fi-enabled device, your chances of logging on during a flight have been virtually nonexistent since Connexion shut down. Lufthansa said it would soon restart its Wi-Fi service but offered no details on timing or routes. (Oman Air offers in-flight Wi-Fi for $10 to $30, depending on how much data you use, or $5 for online chatting, and Air Canada offers Gogo wireless service on two flights.)

But inside the United States, given that some airlines have only a few Wi-Fi-equipped planes and some have a lot, how do you know if your next aircraft will be technologically blessed?

Unless you fly on Virgin America or AirTran, which offer Wi-Fi on every plane, you may face some guesswork. American posts a “Wi-Fi” icon next to the online flight information 24 hours before a flight, and US Airways and United post similar symbols at the time of booking, but Delta has no such notification methods.

Southwest will send e-mail messages to passengers before a flight to let them know they’ve got lucky aircraft No. 910, the fleet’s only Wi-Fi-enabled plane. Whitney Eichinger, a Southwest spokeswoman, said the company would unveil “more formal” notification when it adds more Wi-Fi-equipped planes this summer.

One thing that won’t vary among airlines with Wi-Fi is their policies about using Skype.

Other countries are cavalier about cellphone chatter on airplanes, but domestic carriers in the United States don’t think passengers will accept such noise at high altitude, so they block such technologies.

It turns out that I had tested the system before Virgin’s Skype-blocking technology was in place. So I have the distinction, for what it’s worth, of being among the few to sully a flight with a Skype chat.

For those seated nearby who believed they had caught a glimpse of a noisy future, it was thankfully brief — and my exchange with my wife quickly yielded to the hum of the engines, the buzzing of audio headsets and the clatter of keyboards.

This article, "," first appeared in the New York Times.