Your odds of flying on a plane with Internet access keep getting better. A rising number of domestic flights—close to half, according to a New York Times report—offer Wi-Fi service onboard. The numbers are even higher for the major carriers. US Airways, for example, provides Wi-Fi on almost 90 percent of its domestic flights. The Federal Aviation Administration’s decision last year to allow airline passengers to use personal electronic devices during all stages of the flight could fuel the demand for Wi-Fi.
But relatively few airplane passengers are using onboard Wi-Fi, according to a recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Of 3,000 leisure travelers polled, 23 percent attempted to connect to Wi-Fi while on a flight, and only 16 percent actually connected. The fact that more than three out of four travelers didn’t even try to use Wi-Fi suggests that they are either content being unplugged, unaware that it’s available, or unwilling to pay for Web access.
Cost could be a deterrent, especially for vacationers who can’t charge the fees to a company expense account. On major airlines including United Airlines, Virgin America, and Delta Air Lines, Wi-Fi prices start at $5 an hour. All-day passes range from $8 on Southwest Airlines to $14 on other carriers, including American Airlines. Several airlines offer a $40 monthly pass; Delta has a $470 yearly pass geared to frequent flyers.
One airline stands out for offering free Wi-Fi: JetBlue, which provides basic service at no charge. Passengers who want to stream video from YouTube or Netflix pay $9 an hour for a high-bandwidth connection.
Internet connectivity in midair is no mean feat. The company Gogo, the largest domestic provider of in-plane Wi-Fi, uses a ground-to-air network of cell towers aimed skyward across the U.S. Available on about 2,000 aircraft from eight carriers, this service is optimized for 10,000 feet and above. Gogo is also developing a hybrid ground-to-orbit service that uses cell towers and satellites, a system it says will increase Internet speed and coverage. Though it is unclear whether Gogo’s new Wi-Fi system will allow for gate-to-gate connectivity, the service is expected to roll out with Virgin toward the end of 2014.