I admit it. I’m an inflight wi-fi addict. I use it all the time.
Because my professional life pretty much lives online and I live much of my working life in the air, it’s a major productivity enhancer. I’m still in awe (and thankful) that we are able to use wi-fi in the sky at all. I’m very forgiving of spotty connections, but less forgiving of no connections.
United’s much heralded new satellite-based wi-fi service sounds like it must be great. But so far it has never worked for me. To be fair, the product is still in beta. Plus, I have received emails from TravelSkills readers flying over the Atlantic or Pacific letting me know that it’s working for them. Plus, I’ve used the ground-based Gogo wi-fi system on United p.s. flights between California and New York City. But it’s United’s new satellite based system I’ve been eager to try.
Last week I flew United to Cancun from San Francisco via Houston and learned a valuable lesson about when and where United’s wi-fi system works…and where is doesn’t.
The trip got off to a good start since the equipment from San Francisco to Houston was upgraded from an older domestic 757 to an internationally configured 767. That meant I got an upgrade to a nice big lie flat business class seat for the four-hour ride to Houston. The bad news was that United’s 767s don’t have wi-fi yet. But no big loss. I was a happy camper and just defaulted to Gmail offline to keep my email box cleaned up.
Next up was my connecting flight from Houston to Cancun on a nice new United 737 with 20 first class seats. Since United sent me the email at the top of this post on the day before my flight, I was excited that I’d finally get to use its inflight wi-fi. Even though it’s only a two-hour flight, it would be worth paying to log on and see how it worked.
As we were taxiing toward take of in Houston, I became even more excited about finally getting to try United’s wi-fi when the flight attendant announced that this flight was equipped with wi-fi and that it only cost $2 per hour (quite a deal compared to what Gogo is charging these days). We took off and headed south and just as we were flying over Galveston and a sea of tankers in the Gulf of Mexico, I thought it was time to log on.
I went through the easy log in process, popped in my credit card number and agreed to the terms and conditions. My credit card was accepted and I agreed to the $2 per hour fee.
And then I saw this pop up:
And I thought, “Hmm. United’s wi-fi is satellite based, which means it should work over water as well as land. Let’s try logging in again.”
So I went back through the process again… including, credit card, CVV number, expiration date and all that.
And I ended up with a similar “out of coverage” notification.
Frustrated, I thought I’d talk to the flight attendant that had proudly proclaimed that this flight had wi-fi. “Is the wi-fi system on? For some reason I’m not able to log on,” I asked. He turned around and looked over his should toward the galley and said, “Yes, the light is on, so it’s working.”
I tried logging on again using my laptop. By this time, my seatmate was in on the wi-fi hunt, too, and he was trying to connect from his iPhone. Neither of us could connect.
So we asked the flight attendant again. Flustered, he came back and said, “We just flew up here from Cancun and I think it was working.” Then another flight attendant said, “It only works over land, not over water.”
So I said, “I think it’s a satellite based system, so it should work over the Gulf of Mexico, right? Can you reboot the system?” I asked. He said, “All I can do it turn it off and on. They haven’t really told us much more about it.”
So we gave up.
When I arrived in Cancun, I logged on to the hotel’s wi-fi system and there was a bill from United for $2.
On the flight back to SFO, I was on a nonstop 737-800 equipped with wi-fi. This time, the pre-flight announcement included a plug for the satellite-based wi-fi, but the flight attendant said it would not work until we flew “close to the US.” That still puzzled me since this was supposedly a satellite-based system, so as soon as we flew over Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas, I tried again. Entered all the credit card info (again) my address (again) CVV and the captcha (again). And I was on! For about 10 minutes.
Then I get this message:
So I called over the flight attendant again and said, “So what’s going on? Isn’t this a satellite based system that should be working over land or water or other countries? Why does this say it only works over the continental U.S.?”
Pause. The flight attendant smiled conspiratorially and said, “Yes, it should be working, but we are on a Continental plane that gets its satellite from DirectTV, and the DirectTV satellite only works within a few miles of the US border. We are currently on a heading that keeps us south of the U.S. border.
So we continued along the southern side of the Rio Grande over Chihuahua and Hermosillo without a connection. And a planeload of grumbling passengers, including me since I’d paid $8 for a four-hour connection and was not getting it. We eventually flew over Tijuana and out over the Pacific for the remainder of the flight to San Francisco—just far enough away from the coast to stay away from the DirectTV satellite coverage over the continental US.
So even if I never logged on during this flight, I learned something valuable to share with TravelSkills readers: United has two different satellite systems for wi-fi, one made by Panasonic, the other by DirectTV. If you are flying on a Boeing 737 with Direct TV, it will only work over the continental US. If you are flying on another aircraft with the newer Panasonic system, it should work over water. Most of the time.
What’s been YOUR experience with United’s inflight wi-fi product? Please share your comments below!
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