There's great debate about the pros and cons of onboard Internet access. Will it ruin flights even more? Will it make life easier? Is it even worth the money? We have the bottom line.
1. Gogo is the go-to network
One network, Gogo Inflight Internet, supplies Wi-Fi to the four main U.S. carriers currently offering the service: AirTran, American, Delta, and Virgin America. A competing company, Row 44, recently got FCC approval and has signed up Southwest and Alaska Airlines.
2. Costs are the same no matter the carrier
Gogo charges $6 for Wi-Fi on flights of up to 1.5 hours, $10 on routes between 1.5 and 3 hours, and $13 on flights over 3 hours. Those are laptop rates; it's $6 to $8 if you're surfing with a smartphone. Row 44 is letting the airlines that use its service set their own rates, so we've got our fingers crossed for price wars with Gogo.
3. Monthlong Wi-Fi passes are only valid with one airline
A $50 pass gets you 30 days of access to Gogo Inflight on AirTran, Delta, or Virgin America (but only one of them, alas).
4. The connection is good
Gogo's service is fast and consistent, about the same quality as you'd expect from the Wi-Fi in a coffee shop.
5. Hotspots don't extend beyond U.S. borders
If Wi-Fi is offered on flights to Mexico or Canada, you won't be able to surf once the plane flies out of range. In fact, even if your destination is a U.S. airport, Wi-Fi may not operate if your plane crosses into Canadian or Mexican airspace. That's because Gogo is a land-based network, which means connection requires proximity to its towers—and those are located solely within the continental U.S.
6. You can sign up in advance
To save hassles, create an account and register your credit card ahead of time at gogoinflight.com. This way, buying a session is just a click or two away as soon as you're above 10,000 feet—the threshold for "approved electronic devices."
7. No phone calls; no porn
Let's dispense with the biggest moot concern. While flying, you can't make calls via the Internet using Skype or other VoIP services—they're blocked. Also, most airlines have instructed Gogo to put filters in place to block obvious porn websites.
8. Just because the airline has Wi-Fi doesn't mean your flight will
Only AirTran and Virgin America currently have Wi-Fi on all planes in the U.S. Other carriers are ramping up, but it's still hard to know if your flight will have service. Your best bet is to call and ask.
9. Airline seats aren't made for laptops
Sitting in coach gets even more cramped when you open your laptop, especially if the passenger in front of you has tired of the "full upright position." Consider paying extra for a bit more space (AirTran's upgrades to an exit row start at $6) and, if possible, use a more compact netbook (see "Slimmer Surfers"). One helpful industry trend is the addition of in-seat power outlets. Check seatguru.com to find out which rows are wired.
10. International access is on the horizon
Unlike Gogo's land-based network, Row 44 uses satellites. That means its service could easily extend beyond U.S. borders—once the technology is installed on carriers that fly overseas, that is.
AIRLINE WI-FI GUIDE
Airtran Airways 100 percent of planes flying domestic routes have the Gogo service.
Alaska Airlines All planes flying routes within the U.S. will be outfitted with Row 44.
American Airlines Has Gogo service on 15 of its 767-200s (primarily used on cross-country flights) and later this fall will have it on 150 MD-80s (the airline's workhorse, used on all kinds of routes).
Delta Air Lines The entire domestic fleet is expected to be outfitted with Gogo by the end of this year.
Southwest Airlines Will begin installing Row 44 on all of its planes in early 2010.
United Airlines Has signed on with Gogo to outfit 13 of its planes—those flying transcontinental routes—beginning late this year (i.e., right about now).
US Airways Plans to start installing the Gogo network on 50 A321 planes in early 2010.
Virgin America Gogo service is up and running on all planes flying routes within the U.S.