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Flying High, Wirelessly

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Big changes are afoot for travelers who like to stay connected to their portable electronic devices at all times. Not only are JetBlue, United Airlines and Southwest currently rolling out satellite-based Wi-Fi that will keep their passengers "connected" during domestic and intercontinental flights but, only last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stated that it is about to initiate a study to assess whether or not it will loosen rules surrounding the use of communication devices.

This is good news for business travelers that feel compelled to access the Internet while in the air. And, if a recent Fly.com survey is indicative of mass opinion, such changes may also be welcomed by many other U.S. travelers as well.

However, experts caution that flyers should not expect too many changes in the near future, and the FAA has emphasized that the use of mobile phones will not be part of its latest evaluation.

This makes the question "what exactly is available today" especially pertinent to web surfers, as well as email and social media fans like myself. Here is what Fly.com has discovered:

You are going to have to pay, but the amount can depend on you and your flight
Even though Fly.com's survey found that 49% of travelers want Internet access included as part of their airfare, today's reality is that domestic airlines are passing on the cost of wireless to their customers. Pricing models vary from one airline to the next. For instance Virgin America charges more according to the length of flight and the type of electronic device that you use (i.e. laptops are more expensive than handheld devices). In contrast, American Airlines offers a monthly Wi-Fi plan that is great for frequent flyers. And Delta has an annual pass for those that are constantly hopping from one place to the next. But it is Southwest's $5 per day (per device) pricing model that seems to be the most cost effective.

Onboard Wi-Fi Fees for Laptops
  • Alaska Airlines - $14.95
  • American Airlines - Up to $17.95 per flight (handheld devices up to $9.95 per flight)
  • Delta - $12 per day
  • Southwest Airlines - $5 per day
  • US Airways - $24.95 per day
  • Virgin America - $17.95 for flights over 3 hours (handheld devices up to $9.95 per flights over 1.5 hours)

Not all airlines are equal
Just because an airline says that it offers Wi-Fi does not mean that it will actually be available on your flight. While most major U.S. airlines have adopted some kind of wireless strategy, not all aircrafts have been Wi-Fi enabled. In fact only Virgin America, Alaska Airlines and Delta have deeply embraced the technology across most (if not all) of their fleets.

However, if you really want to know if your flight has wireless, keep an eye out for Wi-Fi symbols and signage as you board your aircraft. Alternatively, some airlines like American Airlines let you check this type of information within 24 hours of your departure.

Don't expect to be able to stream video
Unfortunately if you are envisioning using your in-flight downtime to watch streaming video or load rich-media websites, you are going to either be out of luck or incredibly frustrated. In-flight Wi-Fi is really geared toward travelers that want to read blogs/news, send emails or play around on social media sites. If you want to do anything beyond this you will probably find that your connection is painfully slower than what you are used to on the ground. After all you are in a permanent state of motion -- not to mention moving through various weather patterns.

Using gadgets during take-off and landing is still a no-go
Nothing has changed with regard to when you can use portable electronic devices like laptops, iPads and DVD players. You are still going to have to switch them to flight mode, stow them away and power down until your plane has reached the obligatory 10,000 feet (past the reach of cell towers).

Looking to offset Wi-Fi charges on your next plane trip? Try saving some money by searching for cheap flights.

- - Michelle Erickson is the director of public relations at Fly.com and is based in California. A British native, Michelle has lived on three continents and is an avid traveler.