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

Learn which airlines and flights will have wireless Internet access.

October 28, 2009, 10:45 AM

Nov. 23, 2009— -- 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 "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 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.

Certain sites Gogo deems inappropriate are blocked. The service uses ground-based cell towers to connect and sometimes domestic flights will fly over Canada, resulting in a temporary loss of connection.

Wi-Fi on Domestic Airlines

Alaska Airlines is testing a Wi-Fi service right now on one specially-equipped Boeing 737-700 and has plans to expand the service. During the testing period, the service will be free and can be used on laptops, smartphones and other Wi-Fi enabled devices. A pricing structure will be decided after the testing period.

(There are no plans currently to expand the service to sister airline Horizon Air, a regional carrier.)

The service is provided through Row 44, which uses satellites to connect to the Internet. Alaska favors the satellite connection over the cell-phone based connection, in part, because of the limited cell phone reception for flights to Alaska. Row 44 also works over water, theoretically giving Alaska a competitive edge on its flights to Mexico and Hawaii.

Alaska Airlines blocks VoIP, or voice call, service but no other sites. The airline said that passengers are responsible for their own surfing behavior just they are responsible for their magazines, movies and other materials brought on board. Passengers will be required to agree to certain terms of use when they log in, including a commitment to use the system appropriately.

More information about the service can be found on the airline's Web site,

The single plane with Wi-Fi has a logo outside of the plane and also has cards in front of every seat with instructions of how to log in. The airline publishes a list of all the flights that specific plane will be taking each day on the right side of its flight status Web site.

American Airlines offers Wi-Fi, also through Gogo, on all 15 Boeing 767-200s used for transcontinental flights, such as New York to San Francisco or Los Angles. American also offers WiFi on about 150 of its MD80s, and the service will be available on the airline's new Boeing 737 fleet. (The airline is replacing older planes with new 737-800s at the rate of about one every 10 days. This will take two years and all will have Wi-Fi.)

The cost of the service ranges from $5.95 to $12.95 per flight, depending on the distance and the type of device used. (See the AirTran listing above for more details.) VoIP calls and pornographic sites are blocked by Gogo.

Right now, American doesn't have any way to tell customers in advance which MD-80s will have Wi-Fi, but is developing a tool. For now, passengers must for Wi-Fi logos inside and outside the plane and on seatback cards.

American was the first U.S. airline to provide broadband Wi-Fi service and was the launch customer for Aircell's Gogo service.

More details about the service can be found at

Continental Airlines is working with LiveTV to provide live satellite television on its fleet. As part of that plan, a company spokesman said the airline plans to offer free Wi-Fi, subject to LiveTV being able to offer the service.

Continental now has TV on about 30 aircraft and plans to complete installation on its fleet of Boeing 737 Next-Generation and Boeing 757-300 aircraft by March 2011.

Delta Offers Widespread Wi-Fi

Delta offers Wi-Fi on more than 300 planes through Gogo. The airline is also adding Wi-Fi to 200 aircraft acquired through its merger with Northwest Airlines, scheduled to be completed by mid-2010. By June 2010, Delta said it will have a total of 530 Wi-Fi equipped planes.

The cost of the service ranges from $5.95 to $12.95 per flight, depending on the distance and the type of device used. (See the AirTran listing above for more details.) VoIP calls and pornographic sites are blocked by Gogo.

Like other airlines, the key to finding Delta planes with Wi-Fi is to look at aircraft type. Boeing 757s have the service, and the airline is adding Wi-Fi to 737s and 767s. For the latest details, check out the airline's Wi-Fi blog.

Delta currently provides customers with information about Wi-Fi enabled aircraft using flight attendant announcements, icons near passenger seats and information cards in seatbacks. It will be including information about which aircraft include in-flight Wi-Fi on in the future.

JetBlue is currently testing Wi-Fi on one Airbus A-320 it is calling BetaBlue. The satellite-based service is provided through LiveTV, its wholly-owned subsidiary that is also going to provide the service to Continental.

JetBlue is not charging for the service and is trying to use that free service, along with its free live TV, to market itself as "a different type of carrier."

"We believe the North American consumer has come to expect more -- not less -- of their airline, and we are pleased to provide this service to them free of charge," the airline told ABC News.

The airline is unable to say in advance which flights BetaBlue, the Wi-Fi plane, will serve on any given day. In other words, it's not possible to book a flight on BetaBlue. JetBlue's scheduling department attempts to place BetaBlue on transcontinental flights as much as possible; however, there will certainly be times when the plane will be used to serve short- and medium-haul flights.

More information about the service can be found here.

After the trial on the one A-320, JetBlue said it will roll out the service to more aircraft, however it does not have a timeline at this point.

In order to keep the connectivity free and available for anyone who wants to use it, JetBlue said it decided to go with a narrowband option. Customers traveling on the aircraft can use their Wi-Fi enabled devices to send and receive e-mail messages from their accounts, including Yahoo! Mail, Microsoft Exchange, Gmail, Windows Live and AOL for free. Users can also send and receive Yahoo! instant messages, and customers with Wi-Fi enabled BlackBerry smartphones can access their BlackBerry accounts. Customers can also log onto to shop from the sky.

Southwest Airlines provides Wi-Fi service through Row 44. Prices range from $5 to $8 to $10 for laptops, depending on the length of a flight. Using handheld devices costs either $2, $4 or $6, also depending on flight length.

Only four aircraft have the service at this point, but the airline expects to roll it out to the entire fleet during the next 18 months.

Passengers can't book a flight on a specific Wi-Fi plane, but the airline said it alerts customers via e-mail prior to the flight if their plane will have the service. VoIP calls and inappropriate sites are blocked.

For more information, visit Southwest's Wi-Fi Web site.

United Airlines also provides service through Gogo. The cost of the service ranges from $5.95 to $12.95 per flight depending on the distance and the type of device used. (See the AirTran listing above for more details.) VoIP calls and pornographic sites are blocked by Gogo.

The airline only offers Internet access on a few planes now but is planning to have it fully deployed on the 13 Boeing 757s used for its p.s. branded flights by Nov. 6. (The p.s. flights are the longest North American transcontinental flights offered by United.)

The airline will review the use on those 13 aircraft before deciding to expand the service.

More information about United's service can be found here.

US Airways also plans to provide service through Gogo. The cost of the service ranges from $5.95 to $12.95 per flight depending on the distance and the type of device used. (See the AirTran listing above for more details.) VoIP calls and pornographic sites are blocked by Gogo.

The airline plans to have Wi-Fi service installed on its feet of 50 Airbus A-321s by the middle of 2010.

Once launched, the airline said, customers will be able to check whether Wi-Fi is available on a specific flight by looking for the Wi-Fi icon while booking flights on The airline does not have plans at this point to expand the service beyond those 50 jets. More information about the service can be found at

Virgin America in May became the first domestic airline to offer in-flight Internet service on every flight. The service is provided through Gogo. The cost ranges from $5.95 to $12.95 per flight depending on the distance and the type of device used. (See the AirTran listing above for more details.)

Virgin is providing free service from Nov. 10 through Jan. 15 for all passengers on all flights.

In 2010, Virgin hopes to expand some limited mobile communications to its Red seatback touch-screen entertainment platforms. Passengers would not only have the option to use their own PDA or laptop to log on as they do now, but would also be able to connect remotely via the seatback entertainment screens. Think about the ability to use Twitter and Facebook in your seatback.

Virgin currently blocks VoIP technology "in order to maintain a quiet cabin environment." However, unlike other airlines, Virgin America does not block any other Web content on board.

"Guests are free to follow the Internet wherever it may lead them," the airline said.

More information can be found at

Other Airlines including Allegiant Air and Spirit do not have Wi-Fi available onboard, and no immediate plans to offer the service. Midwest and Frontier, both now owned by Republic Airways, are looking to add Wi-Fi to all of the larger aircraft in their combined Midwest-Frontier fleet sometime in 2010 but have no other details at this point.

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