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Although for the past couple of years it has lagged behind competitors – most notably Delta – in installing WiFi on much of its fleet, United has introduced onboard satellite-based WiFi internet connectivity on the first of its international widebody aircraft, becoming the first U.S.-based international carrier to offer customers the ability to stay connected while traveling on long-haul overseas routes.

The aircraft, a Boeing 747 outfitted with Panasonic Avionics Corporation’s Ku-band satellite technology, serves both transatlantic and transpacific routes.

Additionally, United has outfitted Ku-band satellite Wi-Fi on two Airbus 319 aircraft serving domestic routes, offering customers faster inflight Internet service than air-to-ground technology (ATG) like Gogo. The company expects to complete installation of satellite-based Wi-Fi on 300 mainline aircraft by the end of 2013. Eventually, this service will be available on all the airline’s Airbus 319 and 320 aircraft, as well as on its Boeing 737, 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787 aircraft (when they are no longer grounded!).

United is adding satellite wifi service.
United is adding satellite WiFi service.

Customers have the choice of two speeds: Standard, priced between $3.99 and $14.99 depending on the duration of flight; and Accelerated, priced  between $5.99 and $19.99 and offering faster download speeds than Standard.

I used satellite WiFi for the first time this summer while flying on Lufthansa from Dusseldorf to Chicago and found it to be surprisingly fast and reliable, though expensive at 19 euros ($25) for the 9-hour flight. I also purchased wifi in a recent Chicago to Tokyo flight on Japan Airlines and it was a little slower, but still pretty good. As I travel more and more and farther and farther, the ability to stay in touch on those long-haul overseas flights seems more and more imperative, and I’m glad it’s finally starting to become available more frequently.

If you’ve watched the pre-safety video on a United flight  lately, then you’ve heard CEO Jeff Smisek mention that in addition to satellite WiFi United is upgrading its fleet with more than $550 million in improvements. The additional onboard offerings will include:

  • Operating the world’s largest fleet of aircraft with flat-bed seats, with more than 175 aircraft with 180-degree flat beds in premium cabins once the airline completes the installation in the second quarter of 2013.
  • Expanding extra-legroom Economy Plus seating to provide the most such seating of any U.S. carrier.
  • Revamping the transcontinental “p.s.” fleet of airplanes that fly between New York Kennedy and Los Angeles and San Francisco, offering an improved premium cabin with fully flat beds, Wi-Fi Internet service, and personal on-demand entertainment at every seat.
  • Improving inflight entertainment options with streaming video content on the Boeing 747-400 fleet.
  • Retrofitting overhead bins on 152 Airbus aircraft, allowing for significantly greater storage of carry-on baggage.
United will soon operate the largest fleet with the most lie-flat seats.
United will soon operate the largest fleet with the most lie-flat seats.

Although I am an Executive Platinum on American and think of it as my main airline, I am tempted to start flying United more, since their miles are the most valuable (in my personal opinion). However, I’ve had a number of awful customer service and technology experiences with United and until they can demonstrate at a minimum of mediocre customer service for their elite flyers, I won’t waste my time actually flying on their planes. Instead, I’ll enjoy the great customer service I get as an Executive Platinum on American (while not perfect, leagues ahead of United) and rack up United miles via Chase Ultimate Rewards cards.

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