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In-flight WiFi has had limited experimentation aboard Canadian planes, but it’s starting to take off in the United States, where carriers charge $12 to $20 (U.S.) for the privilege of surfing while flying. The New York Times
In-flight WiFi has had limited experimentation aboard Canadian planes, but it’s starting to take off in the United States, where carriers charge $12 to $20 (U.S.) for the privilege of surfing while flying. The New York Times

Business travel

Airlines bringing WiFi to the sky Add to ...

I was on an airplane and they have high-speed Internet. It’s the newest thing I know that exists.

– U.S. comedian Louis C.K.

Are you looking to go online the next time you hop aboard a plane? Turns out that in Canada, WiFi on a plane is so new that it’s hardly available yet.

Canadian business travellers contacted for this article invariably said they don’t use wireless services in flight – many were unaware it was available even on a limited basis.

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“We put WiFi on two aircraft as a test to measure customer reaction a few years ago and those two aircraft are the only ones we have that are WiFi-equipped,” says Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Air Canada. “At this point we are looking at options.”

WestJet Airlines Ltd. spokesman Robert Palmer says the Calgary-based carrier does not offer WiFi, but is also “exploring options.” Brad Cicero at Porter Airlines says, “We don’t have a definitive plan but it’s something we may consider.”

Meanwhile, U.S. airlines are rolling out cross-country WiFi this year. They have been gradually expanding their services since American Airlines began offering it five years ago.

In the United States, in-sky Internet seems to be catching on, though slowly. With prices to go online in the air ranging from $12 to $20 (U.S.), it’s still only being used by a minority of travellers.

“What we’re seeing is that usage rate is around 15 per cent,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with San Francisco-based Hudson Crossing LLC.

“But that’s 15 per cent for all flights,” he adds, noting that even in the United States not every plane even offers Internet service.

“I would argue that real rate is much higher if you were to look at service on all airlines that offer WiFi. There are many flights that are maxed out in terms of WiFi use. There’s also growth occurring among users of smartphones and tablets.”

Even with this increased use in the United States, the rollout of WiFi in the air is slow compared with the lightning pace of the technology marketplace, where new products can replace old ones every few weeks.

It’s happening slowly because of passenger resistance, price, changing technology, deal-making between the airlines and the wireless providers and, to some extent, airlines wondering whether people really want to be online when they’re up high.

Some travellers say they’re confused by the flight attendants’ command to “turn off hand-held devices” at takeoff, only to hear that it’s okay to turn them on again, for a fee.

Others worry that it’s not safe (although it is). In-flight WiFi is available to passengers only above 10,000 feet (3,048 metres). Sensors shut off the system below that altitude.

One of the complications impeding rapid WiFi growth in the air is that the airlines don’t provide it directly. They contract with suppliers who have purchased spectrum rights from communications regulators – the main ones are Illinois-based Gogo Inc., Panasonic Corp., a California-based firm called Row 44 and Geneva-based OnAir.

Last year Gogo, which has supplied WiFi technology for Air Canada’s two planes, announced plans to form a partnership with Ottawa-based SkySurf Canada Communications Inc. to expand airborne wireless services across Canada by the end of 2013.

SkySurf bought the rights for ground-to-sky Internet from the federal government in Ottawa’s 2009 spectrum auction, for a reported $2.1-million. Transport Canada has been reviewing the rules for hand-held devices on planes, based on Air Canada’s experience with its two Gogo equipped planes.

Airborne Internet is limited right now to some extent because it relies on contact with cell towers on the ground. But Mr. Harteveldt says satellite connections are coming, which would enable overseas flights to offer online service, too.

What the expansion will mean for travellers in Canada remains to be seen, though, because Canadian carriers are keeping their plans largely under wraps for competitive reasons.

“The technology is evolving very quickly, for example becoming lighter, cheaper and with greater functionality,” says Air Canada’s Mr. Fitzpatrick.

WiFi equipment on a plane now can require a change in design that puts a “bump” on the outside profile of the aircraft, adding several hundred pounds and affecting aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. But the equipment is changing fast.

Do people really want to pay an extra $20 or so to spend the few hours they’re in the air checking their Facebook, tweeting their friends or answering e-mails from the office? The latest research suggests they probably do, Mr. Harteveldt says.

This year, his company surveyed 5,067 air travellers and found that 81 per cent own a laptop, 42 per cent have a tablet and 64 per cent have smartphones.

Among those surveyed, more than six out of 10 said they bring their laptops on trips at least half the time, seven out of 10 bring their tablets, and nearly 90 per cent bring their phones.

“We’re bringing these devices on most of the trips we take now. We have this expectation of being able to connect anywhere, any time,” Mr. Harteveldt says. “Now it’s not good enough to connect at the airport. Now people expect to connect at 35,000 feet.”

The next phase of airline WiFi might also include limited “narrowband” connectivity packages at lower prices, enabling people, for example, to check e-mails but not download movies or watch webinars while in the air.

With technology getting simpler and service improving, it may be the beginning of the end of that quaint, idyllic time for those who look to the sky to get away from the office. “There are travellers who say that a flight is the last place where they can literally say, ‘I’m not available,’” Mr. Harteveldt says.

But air travellers should not complain, says Louis C.K. After all, “You’re sitting in a chair in the sky.”

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