WiFi is becoming common, but doesn’t mean it isn’t complex – Photo: Jason Rabinowitz
A few weeks ago, Gizmodo ran an article claiming to rank and explain every major U.S. carrier’s WiFi system. At Routehappy, a big part of my job is to do exactly that. I need to know exactly what WiFi system is installed on every airline fleet and subfleet in the world, how it performs, what its limitations are, and how it ranks in the overall ecosystem. When I read through this article, I couldn’t help but notice it contained a few errors.
It’s a very complicated ecosystem, but not so complicated that it can’t be figured out. While the article does a great job of explaining how in-flight WiFi works and the technology behind it, I felt it was necessary to clear up which airlines currently offer what systems. Gizmodo’s 1-9 ranking is unchanged.
Below are excerpts from the original Gizmodo article, with my comments added under each.
Southwest Boeing 737-700 taxing at KPAE
In the summer, my wife and I were planning a Christmas trip to Disneyland with our two toddlers (ages 2 and 4). We were looking to get out of cold Denver for the holidays, and had visited Disneyland in December a few years ago and thought all of the decorations were really cool. We decided to pull the trigger in late summer and I went work booking our travel.
I’m a very loyal United Airlines flyer, being Denver-based, and try to fly them exclusively. However, flights to the Los Angeles-area at Christmas, even months in advance, were ridiculously expensive. I’ve also recently come to grips with the fact that, having a newly-two-year-old daughter, four airline tickets really start to add up. So, I looked at the options on Southwest Airlines (WN) and was shocked – less than $200 round-trip for direct flights between Denver (DEN) and Orange County (SNA), which was less than half the cost of other options. I had never booked myself on WN, but couldn’t pass up the huge cost difference, especially for such a short flight. (Note – since I booked my “first” WN flights, I actually ended up flying on them to the Bahamas on a short-notice trip).
That bump on the back of the Southwest Boeing 737 gives Row44 internet to the aircraft.
Recently I got a call on my phone where I didn’t recognize the number, so I decided not to answer. Then they called again. Okay, fine — it might be something important so I answered and it turned out to be my friend Nick. Wait a second; #1 why is he calling with a number I do not know and #2 he is flying on Delta Air Lines from Minneapolis (MSP) to Seattle (SEA), how is that possible? Even though airlines and internet providers have tried to ban talking via phones on airliners, there are still pretty easy ways to get around it.
Earlier Nick and I had been talking about VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) and I was explaining how you cannot have a phone conversation while flying — he was all too happy to prove me wrong. This is by no means a “how-to” story and I am not going to explain how he did it, since I am against people talking via their phone on planes. However, I can say it was nothing complicated and anyone with a smart phone could and an internet connection could replicate it.
So, it was possible to use GoGo Wi-Fi (internet provider on Delta and other airlines) to talk on the phone and I wondered what policies airlines and internet providers had in place to stop passengers from doing things they should not (phones, porn, etc).
I first spoke with Steven Nolan with GoGo Communications and he explained, “We do restrict VOIP services and at the request of our airline partners, we also restrict access to some web sites.” One of the big challengers is technology is always changing and it can be difficult to know all the “bad” sites and smart phone applications. What happens when someone, like Nick, finds a loophole? Well, talking to multiple airlines, this doesn’t seem to be a big problem.
Virgin America’s Abby Lunardini explained that they block VOIP and have not had any major issues with passengers finding their way around it. Alaska Airlines also bans VOIP for passengers on their GoGo internet. Even though they haven’t had a lot of issues, the flight crew are trained to enforce the airline’s policy. “Should a customer get around the VOIP blocking, our flight attendants would be prepared to enforce our policy which prohibits voice calls of any kind inflight,” Alaska Airline’s Bobbie Egan explained to AirlineReporter.com.
Row44, another airline internet provider, that can be found on Southwest Airlines and Norwegian Air Shuttle helps airlines in similar ways. They provide airlines software that allows them to choose what sites they want to block. “We allow our airline partners to decide whether to use this option and which sites to block,” Row 44’s chief commercial officer, Howard Lefkowitz explained over email. Row44’s airline customers are easily able to add new sites that are deemed to be a problem since new technologies are always emerging. “The back-end system supporting Row 44’s broadband entertainment platform adapts quickly and can immediately add new sites (VoIP services or other types of websites) to the list of blocked content in-flight. But this will be a decision for our airline partners.”
So does this become a game to beat the internet providers and the airlines? No, at least it shouldn’t. Public opinion in the US is pretty split on allowing in-flight conversations. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) bans cell phone usage in the US and it is still against airline policy. Nick was a good passenger and kept our conversation short, even though he supports passengers being allowed to talk on their cell phones on a plane.
What are your thoughts? Other airlines around the globe let passengers talk on their cell phones with little to no issues are Americans ready?