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American Airlines is currently spending billions of dollars a year pushing a transformation of its product. Not all of these are positive improvements. “Project Oasis” is squeezing legroom on more than 500 domestic aircraft. Meanwhile, AA’s newest planes don’t have IFE screens and have very small bathrooms in economy.

However, AA didn’t spend all $1.8 billion in 2018 making economy worse. It’s added a true premium economy cabin to more than 100 international aircraft, opening new — and quite impressive — Flagship Lounges and is ditching slow ground-based Gogo internet for satellite-based Wi-Fi across its mainline fleet. And, this Wi-Fi installation process isn’t a small task. When it’s complete by mid-2019, more than 900 mainline aircraft will offer fast satellite-based Wi-Fi and 12 channels of live TV.

While AA has completed the process on all of its widebody and international aircraft, passengers may still associate American Airlines Wi-Fi with slow ground-based Gogo internet. However, that’s certainly no longer the case. AA now has over 800 mainline aircraft with high-speed satellite-based Wi-Fi currently flying the skies with the goal to finish the installations on more than 900 by mid-2019.

TPG caught up with the team at American Airlines this week to see how the retrofit process is going. Here’s the current state of American Airlines’ Wi-Fi as of Feb. 21, 2019:

Aircraft Satellite-based Wi-Fi (fast) Ground-based Wi-Fi (slow) Total Fleet
A319 LUS 93 93
A319 LAA 32 32
A319 ex-Frontier 2 2
A320 48 48
A321 182 37 ^ 219
A332 15 15
A333 9 9
B738 261 43 ^ 304
B738 MAX 22 22
B757 29 5 * 34
B763 23 23
B772 47 47
B773 20 20
B788 20 20
B789 21 21
E190 20 * 20
MD80 29 * 29
Total 824 134 958

^Aircraft to be retrofit with satellite-based Wi-Fi by mid-2019.
*Aircraft to be retired in 2019.

Panasonic

Panasonic is the easiest of these internet subscription plans to understand, as American Airlines has installed satellite-based Panasonic Wi-Fi on all of its widebody and international aircraft. This includes all:

According to an American Airlines spokesperson, some aircraft are enabled with gate-to-gate connection now (757s, 767s, A330s), some are in the process of being gate to gate (772s) and some aren’t yet (773s and 787s).

Pricing is identical on every flight — whether the flight is two hours from Dallas to Miami or 16 hours from Dallas to Hong Kong:

  • $12 for two hours
  • $17 for four hours
  • $19 for the entire flight

The downside is Panasonic hasn’t been the fastest or most reliable internet service provider. On TPG‘s recent review of AA’s Boeing 757 business class, speeds were a paltry 1.56Mbps to 2.8Mbps download and 0.1Mbps upload. Similarly, I experienced slow enough internet on a recent AA transatlantic A330 flight and a transpacific 787-9 flight that I was able to successfully petition for a refund.

ViaSat

In June 2016, American Airlines chose satellite-based internet provider ViaSat for its 737 MAX aircraft. Shortly later, it decided on ViaSat to replace the ground-based Gogo internet found on much of its fleet. Here’s how the retrofit is going as of Feb. 21, 2019:

  • Airbus A319 (legacy AA aircraft): 32 out of 32 (100%)
  • Airbus A321: 182 out of 219 complete (83%)
  • Boeing 737-800: 261 out of 304 complete (86%)
  • Boeing 737 MAX 8: all 22 have been delivered with ViaSat installed (100%)

On recent flights, I’ve found that AA is charging $12 for a one-hour pass and $16 for a full-flight pass — even if that’s a 6+ hour flight across the US:

Of the three providers, I’ve had the best experience with ViaSat. The connection is available from gate to gate and the speeds are quick enough for productive work.

I tested the ViaSat connection on AA’s 737 MAX from NYC to Miami. While upload speeds weren’t the best, download speeds were excellent. And this test was done when ViaSat was still being made available to all passengers for free on these 737 MAX flights.

Since then, I’ve used ViaSat on a couple of domestic 737-800 flights. Even with numerous passengers online on a tech-heavy San Jose, CA (SJC) to Chicago (ORD) flight, the speeds were fast enough that I was able to work just as fast as I typically do on the ground.

Speedtest from a ViaSat-enabled flight from SJC-ORD on September 13, 2018
Speedtest from a ViaSat-enabled flight from SJC-ORD on Sept. 13, 2018

Gogo 2Ku

Perhaps in a hurry to get satellite-based internet on all of its aircraft as soon as possible, AA didn’t give ViaSat all of its satellite-based Wi-Fi installation business. Instead, it also chose to work with Gogo to install its fastest 2Ku option on 151 of the airline’s legacy-US Airways (“LUS”) domestic fleet. And AA is just five aircraft shy of this retrofit being complete:

Although I actively avoid LUS aircraft, I flew a legacy US Air A319 from Charlotte (CLT) to Atlanta (ATL) on Jan. 1, 2019. Before taking off, I clocked some very speedy download speeds. However the upload speeds are lagging:

Gogo has told us that 2Ku and its upgraded modem is “capable of delivering up to 400Mbps” of bandwidth on each aircraft. While that speed is shared among all users on the aircraft, that’s enough for everyone connected to get a speedy connection. Some travelers have reported clocking over 130Mbps on AA flights. And, the connection is available from gate to gate.

How to Tell If Your Flight Has Wi-Fi

During the flight booking process, American Airlines previously has shared whether a flight would have Wi-Fi. However, it was still a gamble whether that would mean slow ground-based Gogo Wi-Fi or speedy satellite-based ViaSat or Gogo 2Ku Wi-Fi. But starting Dec. 12, 2018, AA added a small but noteworthy change. Flights that have satellite-based Wi-Fi now have a high-speed indicator. Also, AA is now noting whether (or not) a flight will have power on board:

Which Aircraft Aren’t Getting Wi-Fi

Of American Airlines’ mainline fleet, only the MD-80s and Embraer 190s aren’t included in this Wi-Fi installation project. And both of those aircraft types are supposed to be retired very soon.

Unfortunately, AA’s regional “American Eagle” carriers aren’t getting the same attention. Ground-based Gogo is going to continue to be the norm — if you get Wi-Fi at all.

How to Save on Wi-Fi

If you’re a frequent AA flyer, you’ll want to consider getting a Gogo monthly pass to save money — and the hassle of having to re-purchase Wi-Fi for each flight. The downside: The monthly plans are only good on one airline; you can’t use an American Airlines Gogo monthly pass to get free Gogo access on Alaska. Currently, a monthly plan for AA Wi-Fi access costs $49.95/month — or $59.95/month if you want to be able to connect two devices at the same time.

A new perk added July 22 to the CitiBusiness/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard offers a 25% savings on inflight Wi-Fi purchases on all three of AA’s Wi-Fi providers (Panasonic, ViaSat, Gogo). There’s no promotion code needed for this discount. In my personal experience, you’ll be charged the full amount upfront and then get a credit for the 25% discount in under two weeks — a far cry from the “6-8 weeks after the transaction is posted” that’s listed in the terms and conditions.

Using Gogo Monthly Pass to Access ViaSat

AA’s 737 MAX aircraft were the first to be installed with ViaSat Wi-Fi. And, in order to keep from upsetting current Gogo subscribers, the airline waited until Gogo subscribers could utilize their plan on ViaSat before putting up the paywall on these 737 MAX aircraft. But, this solution isn’t just for the MAX. Travelers with a Gogo subscription can log into the Wi-Fi on all 384 (and counting) aircraft installed with ViaSat.

I’ve become quite accustomed to this log-in process on my flights. On the right side of the Wi-Fi landing screen, there’s a link for passengers who “Have a Gogo Subscription.” Clicking this prompts Gogo subscribers to log into their account to gain access to that flight’s ViaSat Wi-Fi.

Unfortunately for iPass subscribers, this ViaSat log-in option is only available to those with a Gogo subscription. An American Airlines spokesperson confirmed: “at this time, iPass is only an option on Gogo and Panasonic aircraft.”

Bottom Line

While I’m quick to point out AA’s passenger-unfriendly changes and perplexing policies, American Airlines deserves recognition for how it’s improving in other aspects. Its installation of fast satellite-based Wi-Fi on its aircraft is one of the areas where it deserves credit.

And the pace at which it’s retrofitting aircraft with Wi-Fi is nothing short of remarkable. In the 161 days from our update on Sept. 13, 2018 through Feb. 21, 2019, American Airlines has installed satellite based Wi-Fi on 339 aircraft — more than two completed installations per day. Since mid-July 2018, AA has added high-speed Wi-Fi to 424 aircraft.

Between the cost of the Wi-Fi equipment itself to the operational cost of taking an aircraft out of service for days to a week, this has been a very costly investment for the airline. But, one that it expects to pay off over time. For travelers like me that value staying connected, American Airlines is revolutionizing itself into the go-to choice for staying connected while flying domestically. Now, it just needs to focus on its operational performance to make it reliable for business travel.

This post was originally published on July 20, 2018 and updated on Feb. 22, 2019 with the latest information.

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