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While many passengers around the world are just starting to get their first glimpse of in-flight Wi-Fi, those flying within the United States have had the privilege, in some cases, for more than the a decade. Being the first out with a new product comes with a certain prestige, but it can often means that future improvements and enhancements are rolled out by others while your original product quickly looks old and insufficient.
That is exactly what happened with in-flight Wi-Fi in the United States, as the Gogo system airlines originally installed starting way back in 2008 became completely inadequate for modern use. After millions of dollars and thousands of hours of aircraft downtime for installation, in-flight Wi-Fi in the United States is now mostly back up to speed. However, not all Wi-Fi systems are created equal, and each has its own positives and negatives. Let’s break down what’s offered by each airline.
Delta is a major supporter of Gogo, and is by far the largest customer for its latest generation 2Ku system. 2Ku is a high speed satellite system capable of some of the highest speeds in the industry. Delta notoriously strives for passenger experience consistency, so its entire Airbus A319/A320/A321 family and Boeing 737-800/737-900 family fleet feature 2Ku. Delta’s 737-700 family will be equipped with 2Ku “soon.” Every 757-300 that Delta flies is outfitted with 2Ku, but be careful when selecting a Boeing 757-200, as part of that family has 2Ku while others retain the slower Ku technology.
Its fleet of Airbus A350s (home to Delta One Suites) and upcoming Airbus A220s are also equipped with speedier 2Ku tech. The Airbus A330-900neo aircraft will sport 2Ku once deliveries begin later this year.
Delta’s entire remaining international fleet — including all Boeing 767/777 and Airbus A330 planes — features Gogo’s regular Ku service, which while a bit slower than 2Ku, is adequate. All regional jets larger than 50 seats, as well as MD-80, MD-90 and 717 aircraft, feature Gogo’s old air-to-ground network, which struggles to keep up with modern use. Avoid those types if you want fast Wi-Fi.
Pricing for Delta’s Wi-Fi varies flight to flight, but messaging applications like iMessage, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are free for the entirety of the flight, although only for text, without images. Delta breaks out its 2Ku pricing into a “Browse” and “Stream” pass, so you’ll have to cough up a few bucks extra to unlock Netflix. If you are a T-Mobile customer, though, you have one hour of free Wi-Fi.
While American was the first airline to roll out in-flight Wi-Fi in 2008, it was one of the last to embark on a project to upgrade its old systems. American may have waited longer than the others, but it is now cruising along at a remarkably fast pace to retrofit its entire mainline fleet with either Viasat Ka and Gogo 2Ku Wi-Fi. (The airline says this will be completed in mid-2019.) All 737s will soon feature Viasat’s Ka-band satellite Wi-Fi, which much like Gogo 2Ku provides super-fast connectivity. In the meantime, these aircraft carry Gogo’s air-to ground network, along with all regional jets larger than 50 seats.
When flying within the continental United States, passengers are unlikely to notice a difference between the two services. Viasat has a slight disadvantage when leaving the lower 48, however, as its satellites will not cover the popular west coast to Hawaii routes, nor flights out of the Miami hub to a handful of South American destinations, until a second satellite is activated, soon.
On its entire widebody and international Boeing 757 fleet, American offers Panasonic’s Ku system. This is pokey by modern standards, but features near-global coverage. You won’t be streaming Netflix on these flights, but general web browsing should be mostly fine.
American does not offer a free messaging plan, but does not charge a higher rate to stream video on its 2Ku and Viasat aircraft. American will complete its 2Ku and Viasat installs later in 2019, putting it back into contention with its competitors.
United offers a few different connectivity systems, but the bulk of its domestic fleet is connected with the same Viasat system used by American. All 737s (except those operating out of beautiful Guam) and a handful of 757-300s feature Viasat Ka, but don’t plan on streaming Netflix like you can on American. United restricts its high speed system to “Basic” connectivity on all of its aircraft except for the brand-new 737 MAX 9, where streaming is unlocked. These aircraft also don’t provide coverage outside of the continental United States.
United’s entire international fleet offers the same Panasonic system as American, so while it works globally it just isn’t very fast and struggles to keep up on packed transcontinental flights where lots of people share the connection. Premium domestic 757-200s used on transcon flights have Gogo as well, but only on the version with 28 business seats. 757-200s with 16 biz seats feature the Panasonic system.
Like American and Delta, all of United’s regional jets larger than 50 seats have Gogo’s slightly faster air-to-ground network on board, which isn’t great but is better than nothing. Pricing for United’s Wi-Fi varies quite a bit, and the airline does not currently offer a free messaging service.
JetBlue waited longer to offer in-flight Wi-Fi than any other major airline in the United States, but doing so let it roll out Viasat Ka across its entire fleet. Not only does JetBlue offer Wi-Fi on every aircraft, but it offers the service for free. Not just basic connectivity or free messaging, but the entire internet, streaming included. Passengers are actually encouraged to stream, and it really does work after a little bit of buffering.
Where JetBlue comes up a bit short is in the coverage department, as it suffers from the same issues as United’s and American’s Viasat aircraft. However, JetBlue operates a good number of its entire route network outside of the current Viasat coverage area. While a new satellite has already been launched to address these gaps, JetBlue will need to upgrade its aircraft to be able to “talk” to this new satellite, and that won’t happen overnight. If you’re flying within the lower 48 states, however, JetBlue is by far the best bet for in-flight Wi-Fi.
Believe it or not, but Southwest was actually a fairly early adopter of in-flight Wi-Fi. Its massive fleet of 737s is fully connected with Global Eagle’s global Ku Wi-Fi system, sans for a few aircraft with Panasonic before being converted to Global Eagle later in 2019.
Southwest’s Wi-Fi has historically been unusably slow over the years, but it has made significant strides in improving the service. Its efforts seem to have paid off, and speeds are on the up and up. However, don’t try to stream Netflix, as it probably won’t work. While Southwest doesn’t provide Wi-Fi for free, it has the least complex pricing out there. $8 a day all in, with messaging provided free of charge.
Alaska has just started a major Wi-Fi retrofit program and is lagging behind all other major airlines, but here’s where it stands now. Except for a few brand new 737-900ERs with Gogo 2Ku, its entire 737, A319 and most of the A320 fleet offers slow Gogo ATG-4. As you’ve read already, ATG-4 is insufficient for modern use and does not provide a great experience. Alaska is retrofitting its entire fleet with 2Ku, but it is only just beginning and won’t finish for quite some time.
A few ex-Virgin America A320s offer Viasat Ka, but there’s no predicting where or when those will pop up. The best chance for high speed Wi-Fi on Alaska is on the A321neo fleet, which offers either Viasat or Gogo 2Ku. There’s no way to know which service you end up with, but both allow for full streaming of video like Netflix. Alaska offers free messaging across its entire fleet, but full internet access fees vary.
The Overall Winner Is…
All of that detail is great, but let’s break it down by what matters most to you. There is no simple answer, as each airline has its ups and downs.
If you are looking for an airline that provides speedy Wi-Fi with coverage on almost every flight on a global basis, you’re going to want to pick Delta, but be prepared to pay for that speed. If you want predictable pricing and availability on every single flight, but don’t really care about streaming video, Southwest is your airline. If you want speedy Wi-Fi but you don’t want to pay for it, and won’t be leaving the lower 48, JetBlue is your best bet.
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Featured image of a Delta Air Lines Boeing 757-300 by Alberto Riva/TPG
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