Airlines Add Internet Access: The Definitive Guide to Navigating Airplane Wi-Fi

When Brian Clark recently flew from San Francisco to New York he was expecting to get a little work done on his flight thanks to a new wireless Internet connection onboard. In fact, he even specifically chose one airline over another knowing that his carrier had a high number of planes with Wi-Fi access.

But when he actually boarded the plane Clark found out he wasn't able to access the Internet at 30,000 feet.

"I was expecting to be able to download all my e-mails onboard and unfortunately the Wi-Fi didn't exist. The flight attendant was very apologetic but that didn't help me for the five hours I was onboard," said Clark, a former airline executive who now is senior vice president of travel search site Fly.com. "It's great that they are taking the initiative, but during the implementation it can be very frustrating for travelers."

Wi-Fi access is the latest battle brewing in the skies, as airlines try to find any way to separate themselves from the competition and lure back travelers scared off by the recession.

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While airlines are taking great efforts to promote their new services, trying to pin down which specific flights have Wi-Fi is an often daunting task. After all, what good is it that an airline has 500 planes with Wi-Fi if your flight isn't one of them?

There are some steps travelers can take to at least improve their odds of getting the service. For instance if you know that an airline has rolled out the service on all of its Boeing 757s, booking a flight on one of those aircraft will almost ensure Wi-Fi service. It is possible that a last-minute scheduling or maintenance issue could lead to an aircraft switch, but most likely -- although not guaranteed -- that would be another 757.

In an effort to help you navigate the maze of Wi-Fi services, ABC News has interviewed all the domestic airlines and complied a guide to the services available now, including pricing and tips on which aircraft have the service. (The list was kept to domestic airlines because for the time being, German airline Lufthansa is the only airline offering any type of connection over the oceans.)

And just in case you were wondering: none of the airlines said they are considering permitting cell phone use during flights -- and federal law currently prohibits it.

AirTran has wireless service on all of its planes through AirCell's Gogo service. Users can create an account at www.gogoinflight.com and start surfing on their laptops, certain BlackBerry models, iPhones or some other wireless devices. (American, Delta, United and Virgin America also use Gogo. More details are below.)

The price for handheld devices, such as the BlackBerry or iPhone, is $7.95 for flights longer than 1.5 hours. For all devices, the price is $5.95 for flights shorter than 1.5 hours, $9.95 for flights between 1.5 and 3 hours and $12.95 for a single flight longer than 3 hours. Gogo also offers a 24-hour pass on a single airline (AirTran and Delta only) for $12.95 and a $49.95 monthly pass for use on a single airline (AirTran, Delta and Virgin America only.)

AirTran offers the service on all flights and is still looking into other ways to expand it, although a spokeswoman said there are no plans to announce as of yet.

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