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Why Are So Few People Using In-Flight Wi-Fi?

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I’m a big fan of in-flight Wi-Fi and have used it every time I fly when it’s offered. One of the main reasons I fly Virgin America when possible is because GoGo is available on every flight. But according to a USA Today article I’m in the minority. The most optimistic estimates are that less than 10% of passengers bother to take advantage of in-flight Wi-Fi when it’s offered. It’s pretty expensive to log on at 30,000 feet, but it’s well worth it in my opinion since it relieves the typical pre-flight stress of sending/receiving email and taking care of business before being cut off for several hours. It also allows me to make last-minute travel arrangements and let friends/relatives know when I’m landing. The best thing about in-flight Wi-Fi is that I no longer have to go dark for a day when I travel cross country.

According to the USA Today article, the number one reason people aren’t using GoGo and its competition is that the services are too expensive. I completely understand that issue for those traveling for personal reasons, but the benefits to business travelers surely outweigh the $4.99 to $12.99 per flight access charges. I’m guessing that a lot of business travelers aren’t jumping online while flying because their colleagues and customers simply don’t expect them to be online while traveling. Relatively few planes are equipped with wireless Internet access and jumping online while flying is still a novelty. As the technology matures and prices come down I expect bosses will expect their employees to log on instead of kicking back and relaxing on flights.

Are you using in-flight Wi-Fi when it’s available or are airplanes your do-not-disturb zone?

Xavier Lanier is the publisher of Gotta Be Mobile and a photographer. He uses too many devices to count, but his current favorites are the iPhone 5s, HTC One, Nikon D800 and Sony RX 100M II. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

20 Comments

  1. Big D

    07/07/2010 at 5:47 am

    Just as yourself, I purchase the GoGo subscription everytime it’s available. I really believe it’s one of the best services they can offer on a plane (better than a small glass of Ginger Ale and a miniature pretzel bag). But I do believe that people are not logging in because of lack of information. So far the vast majority of people I sit next to are completely surprised that I’m online when traveling. I don’t understand why, but it may be just a matter of expectations.

  2. MsJoanne

    07/07/2010 at 6:06 am

    I used it once and would probably be their biggest customer, seeing that I’m in planes every week, but I was flying across country and had a brief layover in Dallas, and when I got on my next flight, I had to pay them again. I didn’t. I won’t. No way! If their service was for 24 hours, or covered all the flights on a given day, I’d be in. I won’t pay per each leg of my trip. They can keep it. I’m completely not interested in getting boned by this ridiculously greedy company.

    • James

      07/08/2010 at 12:05 pm

      They have monthly options

  3. sbtablet

    07/07/2010 at 6:14 am

    I bet a lot of people are looking forward to the nap time, or uninterrupted time to work or read. Why train your business partners to expect you to communicate in-flight when it can be actual personal quiet time.

  4. rainman

    07/07/2010 at 7:45 am

    I agree with sbtablet. I usually use that time to catch up on reading, either work related or not. Uninterrupted time on the ground is a rarity. It can be arranged, of course, but as Xavier wrote, no one expects me to be in contact during a flight anyway… at least not yet. If I must catch up on emails, I prefer to work offline (or set my phone to airplane mode) then upload it all after landing; open the floodgates as it were.

  5. Fernando

    07/07/2010 at 10:38 am

    It is quite expensive, and not that available. I travel a lot on American Airlines and USAirways domestically and internationally and am yet to find it available.

    I’d probably use it if I have it available, but one of the things that has made me think about it is that working on planes is not that comfortable, so paying to not work comfortably…

  6. Jon

    07/07/2010 at 1:34 pm

    Do you really need to be online when flying? I agree with sbtablet and rainman. Urgent and important email messages need attention as soon as possible, but not at the expense of doing so 24/7. Email does not mean “Emmediate Mail.”

  7. John

    07/07/2010 at 2:52 pm

    There are many reasons/combinations of reasons:
    Cost, per leg charges, availability, power, lack of seat space, wanting to get away from work, use restrictions/port blocking, latency, low bandwidth, requiring account creation.

    Look at economy class (which is what most people fly), it is cramped and there isn’t room to be comfortably be using a keyboard and if the person in front of you reclines their seat its even harder. Also there is no place to plug-in with most laptops having 2-3 hours of battery life, so the per leg charge is not for the whole flight but for how long your battery will hold out. Top that off with most airports having insufficient plug-ins and power becomes a big issue.

    All of the companies I have worked for in the last 10 year book only economy class and using a laptop in those cramped spaces is at best uncomfortable. Also I haven’t seen wifi available on international flights since Boeing shut down their connections service, and its on the longer flights that it becomes more appealing.

    • Adam

      07/08/2010 at 12:31 am

      With what john said… not true on all airlines virgin america has it on every plane they fly and when you buy a pass for your computer it is a 24 hour pass for 12.99 and virgin had usa standard 3 prong plugs nea every seat… and the tray table will move closer to you so you can sit closer tot he laptop and tild the screen back more.. and the speed is dsl speed…. the only thing i have found if i try to download a huge file it will put a cap on your bandwith as not to kill the rest of the planes speed…. but its onl on really larg files for email and youtube and other things its great…and to creat an account is easy… just email username and password and then its ready to go next time you fly… I fly a ton about 30k miles a month and mostly on virgin so i buy the montly pass for 34.99 and i get unlimeted use.. i also can use it on any airline that has gogo…

      “”John says:
      July 7, 2010 at 2:52 pm
      There are many reasons/combinations of reasons:
      Cost, per leg charges, availability, power, lack of seat space, wanting to get away from work, use restrictions/port blocking, latency, low bandwidth, requiring account creation.

      Look at economy class (which is what most people fly), it is cramped and there isn’t room to be comfortably be using a keyboard and if the person in front of you reclines their seat its even harder. Also there is no place to plug-in with most laptops having 2-3 hours of battery life, so the per leg charge is not for the whole flight but for how long your battery will hold out. Top that off with most airports having insufficient plug-ins and power becomes a big issue.

      All of the companies I have worked for in the last 10 year book only economy class and using a laptop in those cramped spaces is at best uncomfortable. Also I haven’t seen wifi available on international flights since Boeing shut down their connections service, and its on the longer flights that it becomes more appealing.”"

  8. Virtuous

    07/07/2010 at 7:54 pm

    People are under the mistaken impression that business and government travelers have unlimited expense accounts. In addition some people are fed up with the airlines’ nickeling and diming.

  9. Perry

    07/08/2010 at 5:13 am

    I tried WiFi on a Delta flight once and was surprised at how well it worked. The speed and reliability was much better than the WiFi in the hotel where I was staying! But as to why more people aren’t using it, I think John has the right answer: Planes just aren’t conducive to working with a laptop. There just isn’t enough room in economy to open it up and use it on the tray table, especially if the person in front of you reclines his seat. And unless you’ve got some spare batteries, you’re really paying a lot of money for a couple of hours of WiFi use until you run out of juice.

    I, of course, used my tablet PC on my flight which avoided the space problem, but not the battery one. Perhaps the iPad and similar devices will lead to an increased use of WiFi on planes since they are much more suited to tight spaces and long hours with no external power.

    And, by the way, Virtuous is dead-on about business people being on tight budgets, too. I know my company would look VERY hard at an additional charge for WiFi on the plane and I’d have to have a pretty good justification for it. (And I work for a Fortune 100 company.)

    • Xavier Lanier

      07/08/2010 at 12:25 pm

      I understand tight budgets, but in a lot of cases this is penny wise, pound foolish. Even an hour of productivity from an employee trumps the $12.99 Wi-Fi fee.
      At my last corporate gig, we were paid very well, spent at least $200 per day in client expenses, mileage, etc., but our VP wouldn’t approve Blackberry smartphones because the data plans were too expensive. This meant we spent a lot of time driving to/from FedEx/Kinkos to check email and respond to client requests. It also meant that for every two of us there was a personal assistant that was responsible for doing stuff like looking up directions, shuffling files back and forth to clients, etc.

  10. James

    07/08/2010 at 12:10 pm

    The problem is they target business customers who don’t want to do business on the plane.

    I think it would really take off if they put it on some long haul transatlantic flights (I know flying over the ocean makes it difficult but even transatlantic planes fly over land for 4 hours or more).

    I would use it as a personal traveler just to pass the time and have some alternative entertainment.

  11. James

    07/08/2010 at 12:14 pm

    Think about it an 8 hour flight with 4 hours of wifi, a movie and a couple of meals and you are at the destination already.

    Unfortunately i cannot read a book or sleep on planes.

  12. ynohtna

    07/08/2010 at 12:19 pm

    I think the price is already pretty good deal considering where you are

  13. Chris Paris

    07/08/2010 at 6:28 pm

    For me, the price was too high. There has also been a cutback of nonstop flights, so often flying cross country (for me) is a two-flight affair. If I had a straight 5 or more hour flight, I might consider the cost. But for 2.5 hour flights, it’s just too expensive. And, yes, I am sick of paying airlines more money for every little thing, so this just comes at a bad time for the airline industry, when it’s reputation for overpricing, nickel-and-diming and treating passengers as Guantanamo detainees is all over the press.

  14. John

    07/09/2010 at 3:58 am

    Of course it will vary by airline, and by person, I was just listing a variety of reason that I have encountered or heard. I’ve never flown Virgin but I have flown KLM, Luftansa, Swiss Air, Czech air, Delta, United, Northwest, Alaskan, Southwest, U.S., Continental, and a few others within the last six months and I have never had power on a single flight, nor have I had sufficient room to comfortably use my laptop (X61t) without converting into a tablet. That doesn’t stop me, but it is a common complaint I hear from coworkers and I know a couple who purchased tablets because of it.

    Of course I only get to fly economy class but that just makes my experience the same as the vast majority of people who fly. In flight wifi could be a killer application but with most airlines charging for both wifi and movies/entertainment most people with choose to pay for entertain and take a break from work.

  15. Virtuous

    07/09/2010 at 6:31 pm

    One reason is that many people are sick of getting nickeled and dimed by the airlines. One day they’ll attempt to charge every time you want to use the restroom.

    • Nameless

      07/21/2010 at 2:56 pm

      This. We were shocked going on a vacation from Atlanta to Seattle a year ago, only to find that Delta was now CHARGING for carry-on luggage! What more will they nickel-and-dime for? Airfare is expensive enough as it is!

      The destination flight didn’t have Wi-Fi, but the return flight did. I think it was something like $8 for mobile devices and $12 for laptops. Why would they do that? Why not one flat rate? Even then, I felt it was way too much, especially since I only had the TC1100 at the time, which would only last about 1:45 on a 5-hour flight. (And to make matters worse, NO AC OUTLETS!) And even then, I don’t need the Internet THAT badly. I can wait ’til I get home to do my usual Internet reading/watching/playing.

      I did catch other passengers using the Wi-Fi service, though. One with an iPhone or iPod touch, and a couple others with laptops. One of ‘em was even running some sort of RTS, but I couldn’t quite make out if it was online or offline. Nevertheless, it seemed to have worked surprisingly well.

  16. Ken

    07/12/2010 at 10:54 am

    I just returned from a 10 year anniversary trip with my wife from Martha’s Vineyard.
    We flew American from ORD ro BOS – no wifi, but that was fine, I read.
    Peter Pan bus from BOS to Woods Hole, Ma (2 hours). Free Wifi on the bus. It was great, only problem was going through tunnels in Boston. I used my Dell Axim x51v with WM 6.5.x and it worked great.
    Next was the Steamship Authority ferry from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven (on Martha’s Vineyard; 45 minutes). Free Wifi, again, and it worked great.
    On the return trip I was uploading some pictures from the trip to Facebook while on the bus. It was very slow, but I did not notice any other slowness reading e-mails or browsing the internet.
    I had a very good experience with Wifi on the bus and the ferry.

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