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Flying is terrible, but at least the WiFi is improving

Airlines are upgrading their service — and dropping the price

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Your flight may be delayed. Your bags might get lost. You almost certainly will not have as much legroom as you would like. But one thing is generally improving when it comes to air travel: the ability to connect to the internet.

Some airlines are rolling out the service for the first time. Others are vowing to have their fleets upgraded by the end of the year. Some major carriers have tested free connectivity, while others have dropped their prices significantly.

“As they’re getting the next generation of technology on planes, they can do it in a manner that turns out to be less expensive for the consumer and more reliable as well, which is sort of a win-win,” said Seth Miller, an in-flight entertainment and connectivity analyst and editor of airline-industry news site PaxEx.aero.

Historically, passengers have complained that the WiFi available on planes is slow, unreliable and outrageously expensive. Airlines have been working with providers on improvements for years, especially as travelers’ streaming demands have increased.

The pandemic and supply chain issues presented an obstacle in some cases, Miller said, but major carriers including Delta and Southwest are moving forward with widespread upgrades this year. That’s good news for the millions of travelers who are back in the skies every week, sometimes exceeding pre-pandemic numbers.

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“There are more people flying now, more devices that are data-hungry, more apps that are data-hungry,” said Don Buchman, vice president and general manager of the commercial aviation business at satellite connectivity provider Viasat. “And when you get this push to sort of a new business model — like free — you’re going to see just way more participation.”

He added: “So you need to be able to keep up with that demand.” For his company, that means launching a constellation of high-capacity satellites starting this fall.

The latest development from airlines came in May from Southwest, which announced upgrades to the WiFi on its existing fleet. The company said new hardware from its longtime provider, Anuvu, will be able to provide “a significant improvement” in speed and bandwidth, with an estimated 350 planes upgraded by the end of October.

Southwest planes coming online in the fall will have “high quality internet” and live TV programming under an agreement with a different provider, Viasat, the airline said. Southwest passengers need good connectivity for entertainment during flights; the airline doesn’t have seat-back screens.

“We’re investing in our onboard connectivity and bandwidth available to each customer with upgraded technology that’s now installing across our existing fleet, a strategy to diversify our WiFi vendors on upcoming aircraft deliveries, and plugging Southwest customers into in-seat power to keep them charged while in the air,” Southwest senior vice president and chief marketing officer Ryan Green said in a statement.

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That followed Hawaiian Airlines’ announcement in April that it is introducing free high-speed internet access through an agreement with Starlink, the SpaceX internet service. Installation is expected to start next year, and the airline promises that passengers will be able to use the WiFi for activities such as streaming, playing games, working and posting on social media.

“We waited until technology caught up with our high standards for guest experience, but it will be worth the wait,” Hawaiian Airlines CEO Peter Ingram said in a statement.

Delta confirmed in March that nearly all the domestic planes it owns and operates (not regional carriers) will have WiFi “like what you would find at home” by the end of 2022 as part of a years-long upgrade.

“New Wi-Fi on Delta is faster and more reliable than ever before,” Glenn Latta, Delta’s managing director of in-flight connectivity, said in a statement. “We’ve put this connection through countless tests and scrutinized every detail to ensure customers are getting speed and reliability that exceeds their expectations.”

Delta started charging $5 per flight per device last June on planes with Viasat-enabled WiFi. The airline said last year that its investment in new technology was a move toward offering free WiFi.

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The $5 price point is lower than most other carriers — except JetBlue, which offers the service free — but several other airlines have also lowered their prices. United now charges $8 for connectivity on domestic and short-haul international routes for frequent-flier members; nonmembers pay $10. Alaska Airlines this spring started charging $8 for what it calls “streaming-fast” satellite WiFi, which is on 80 percent of its fleet, this spring. Likewise, connecting on Southwest costs $8.

American Airlines is running a trial on its Viasat-equipped planes that allows passengers to watch an ad for a “sample” of free WiFi — about a 15- to 30-minute session. Passengers can also pay for a longer session as usual. The ongoing trial “will help us to determine our future offerings,” the airline said.

Buchman said he expects to see more airlines shift to some level of free service over the next 12 months; several already offer free WiFi-enabled messaging.

“It’s a pretty big demand, especially coming out of the pandemic; being connected is a comfort,” he said. “What I’m seeing and hearing is I think you’ll start seeing a cavalcade towards that.”

For his part, Miller said he has conversations with airlines about whether travelers will be satisfied with good, reliable and affordable WiFi — even if it’s not free yet.

“Maybe that is, in fact, enough,” he said.

He cautions that consumers should not yet expect to have a flawless connection on every flight. While airlines are tapping into available satellite capacity and upgrading technology on planes, Miller said, more than 1,000 regional jets have older, slower setups.

“It’s a constant cycle of trying to make the system consistent for consumers,” he said. “And that’s a losing battle for airlines because you can’t instantly make every plane the same. There’s always going to be a period where some planes are new and good and some planes are not.”

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