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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 isn’t spending $1.8 billion this year just to make economy worse. It’s in the process of adding a true premium economy cabin to all 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 the end of June 2019, over 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 are still frustrated with slow ground-based Gogo internet on its domestic fleet. And, that’s with good reason. In a recent presentation, AA showed it was less than one-third complete with the narrowbody retrofit in August:

So, 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 mid-September 2018:

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 2 hours
  • $17 for 4 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 ground-based Gogo internet found on much of its fleet. Here’s how the retrofit is going as of mid-September 2018:

  • Airbus A319 (legacy AA aircraft): 1 out of 32 (3%)
  • Airbus A321: 57 out of 219 complete (26%)
  • Boeing 737-800: 107 out of 304 complete (35%)
  • Boeing 737 MAX 8: all 14 have been delivered with ViaSat installed (100%)

On recent flights, I’ve found that AA is charging $12 for a 1-hour pas 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.

In January 2018, 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 September 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:

  • Airbus A319 (LUS aircraft): 72 out of 93 (77%)
  • Airbus A320: 48 out of 48 complete (100%)
  • Boeing 757 (Hawaii fleet): 5 out of 10 complete (50%)

We haven’t gotten a speedtest of these new Gogo 2Ku aircraft yet, as I actively avoid LUS aircraft. However, 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.

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 by the end of 2018.

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.

If you don’t fly enough to justify a monthly pass, you might still save money by buying your Wi-Fi access before you depart. A 24-hour American Airlines Day Pass costs $19 when purchased online ahead of the flight. That can save you a bunch if you aren’t flying nonstop, or if you have a short out-and-back work trip that’ll take less than 24 hours total.

A new perk added July 22 to the CitiBusiness/AAdvantage Platinum Select offers a 25% savings on in-flight Wi-Fi purchases on all three of AA’s Wi-Fi providers (Panasonic, ViaSat, Gogo).

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 179 (and counting) aircraft installed with ViaSat.

On a recent AA 737-800 flight, I got a chance to see for myself how this process worked. On the right side of the Wi-Fi landing screen, there’s a link to 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. Quick installation of fast satellite-based Wi-Fi on its aircraft is one of the areas where it deserves credit.

The airline has gone from only being 13% complete with its domestic Wi-Fi installation process at the end of March to over 42% complete in mid-September. With 416 aircraft to retrofit and a goal of finishing by the end of June 2019, it’s going to need to retrofit at least 10 aircraft per week. If you’re like me and value staying connected, you should start noticing much faster Wi-Fi on American Airlines aircraft.

This post was originally published on July 20 and updated on September 14 with the latest information.

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