A Surprise Test Of United Airlines’ New Wi-Fi Service

After a quiet remembrance of 9/11 yesterday, it’s back to talking about the world of travel.  Incidentally, yesterday was a very interesting travel day.  I ended up on three different flights so got to see a lot of heightened awareness everywhere I went.

My first two flights of the day were on American Airlines.  I’ve grown so accustomed to having wi-fi on their flights and it still amazes me how big a difference it makes being able to stay connected and get work done in flight.  I actually got a chance to test Gogo’s new streaming movie service which I’ll touch more on soon.  As much as I’ve grown to rely on wi-fi whenever I fly American, I’ve also grown accustomed to no wi-fi on United flights.  Up until earlier this year, they had virtually no planes outfitted with wi-fi.  I still hadn’t run into one yet, until last night.  Here’s a quick breakdown of what I experienced.

Marketing/Awareness:

Virtually non-existent.  I boarded the plane somewhat early in the boarding process but not first thing.  There were no announcements about the flight having wi-fi, nor did I see any collateral being handed out.  There was absolutely no visible designation onboard.  American does a good job of this with Gogo.  The only reason I knew the plane had wi-fi is because my seat-mate had received a card describing the service while boarding.  I didn’t see anyone else onboard with one of the cards.

Wi-Fi Service

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Logging On/Payment Process:

Very simple and straightforward.  I find Gogo can be a bit buggy sometimes when it comes to hitting the login page.  When we were on the ground and shortly after takeoff I couldn’t see the wi-fi network.  That’s a bit different than Gogo, where you can see it but the system tells you you can’t logon until 10,000 feet.  Not a big deal, just something to be aware of that if you don’t see the wifi network when you board the plane may still have wifi.  Once airborne for a bit the network appeared but my web browser displayed a page letting me know it would refresh when service was available.  I checked back quite a few times but the service didn’t activate until we were much closer to cruising altitude, well after the double chimes at 10,000 feet.

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Once connected, and before I paid, the system displayed a flight map showing the progress to our destination.  Gogo used to have this feature and I do like it.  It’s especially helpful to me when the flight is delayed since I usually don’t pay attention to the announcements from the captain on flight time.  I was definitely pleased to see this feature.

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My initial understanding was that United would roll out two tiers of service (one regular speed and one that would be noticeably faster).  The two options presented to me were a bit different. One option was for e-mail and mobile access only.  The other was labeled “Full Web browsing access”.  This was more complete though they did condition it that live video streaming might not be available.  None of the differences between two packages really mattered except for one.  They were both the same price!

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Naturally I chose full access.  Another area where United’s service truly excels is switching between devices.  This is a royal pain on Gogo, since sometimes the system doesn’t recognize that you’ve logged out of one device before logging into another.  I’ve had a handful of occasions where I needed to get Gogo tech support involved which isn’t a whole lot of fun.  Mileage Plus members only have to enter their MP # and password on the new device and the service immediately switches over.  Perfectly seamless, wonderful.

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This is all good info, Ed.  But, how was the actual wi-fi service?

Yup, that would be my burning question too. In a word, underwhelming.  Let’s put things into context.  I was on an Airbus A319, a smaller plane.  Oddly enough, since all my flights between IAD and Denver are full, there were probably 20-30 empty seats.  As I walked up and down the aisle a couple times, I was only able to identify two people that were definitely logged on.  There also weren’t a ton of folks with mobile devices or laptops out, so it couldn’t have been too heavily used.

When I heard United CEO Jeff Smisek talk about wifi during StarMegaDO4, he acknowledged that they were way behind the curve but noted that he now thought that was an asset because they would be rolling out better technology than their competitors, both faster (satellite based) and also coverage for international over water flights.  That’s also listed on their website in their FAQ.

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 3.26.04 PMMy experience was neither better or faster in any consistent way than Gogo.  At times the service was fine and I was able to navigate to web pages without issues.  Other times the same page would take 15-30 seconds before loading.  There was some bugginess with one browser I used (Firefox) where it kept bringing up the login/purchase page even though the service was working fine in other browsers at the same time.

I tried to get video to work, but without much success.  I did get it to stream video a couple times for a few seconds and then it would stop. I was able to play a short video on ESPN.com without much trouble.

So, What’s The Bottom Line?

It’s my only experience with the service and it’s new, so any number of things could have happened in one session that might not be representative of the service as a whole.  The interface is intuitive and I loved being able to switch seamlessly between devices.  The service was on par with Gogo, so if I set aside the raised expectations from United themselves, it was a solid value.  At $6.99 it’s cheaper than Gogo, though that could be intro pricing.

The bottom line is that I’ll use it again because I’m connected.  And, I’ll understand when things are buggy because I’m still connected, which is immensely valuable to me when I travel.

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. Now, would United Wifi convince you to turn in your AA wings and fly the most convenient airline out of the DC area? It was wifi holding you back … No? See you on board the friendly skies!

    1. Randy, I’m still a loyal AA guy until proven otherwise! At this point, though, I’m likely to book 100K on both this year. Boy, are my arms tired….

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