USA TODAY International Edition

In- flight Wi- Fi services and prices are changing

Many flyers have access to cheap or free internet

- Rob Pegoraro Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D. C. To submit a tech question, email Rob at rob@ robpegorar­o. com. Follow him on Twitter: @ robpegorar­o.

Americans are returning to the skies in large numbers – and many of them will find that in- flight Wi- Fi has changed a bit since their last time up in the air.

At three of the four biggest U. S. airlines, using some chat apps is now free, while the cost of connectivi­ty on a domestic flight has fallen to a flat fee less than $ 10. Here’s what you might pay at those four carriers for internet access from a chair in the sky:

● At American Airlines, rates vary by flight. They start at $ 10, but passengers have reported per- flight rates up to $ 25. However, the airline is now offering short free sessions on planes using Viasat’s newest satellite- based system.

● Delta offers $ 5 flat- rate pricing on flights with a new Viasat system, with free use of iMessage, Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. You may pay more on other planes; analyst Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, cited a $ 39.95 charge for Wi- Fi from Gogo on a recent New York- San Francisco flight.

● Southwest charges $ 8 for all- day Wi- Fi on one device, with free use of iMessage and WhatsApp. ( Note that its planes lack power outlets, so your laptop may not make it all day.)

● United Airlines now charges $ 8 on domestic flights for members of its MileagePlu­s program, $ 10 for everyone else. Internatio­nal flights cost around $ 20. It also offers free use of “IP- based instant messaging apps,” which spokespers­on Madeline Martin said officially covers iMessage, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp; I’ve seen Signal and Slack work, too.

Except for some smaller regional jets that still use ground- based cellular service, in- flight Wi- Fi now relies on satellites in geostation­ary orbit – and keeping an antenna mounted atop a plane flying at 500 mph locked on to a satellite more than 22,000 miles above the equator can be tricky.

Seth Miller, an airline consultant and founder of PaxEx. Aero, cited two common issues: The plane banks or turns, or its tail blocks the signal.

“The former typically resolves pretty quickly; the latter can require switching satellites or flying for a period of time to remove that ‘ shadow’ effect,” he wrote in an email.

Geostation­ary satellites also can’t reach planes that fly too close to the poles, and some services place other limits. For example, the Thales satellite system on most of United’s 737s only covers the continenta­l U. S.

Starlink and its constellat­ion of lowEarth- orbit satellites can offer coverage that includes the poles. In April, the SpaceX service signed up its first two airline customers: JSX, a small regionalje­t carrier, and Hawaiian Airlines. Both said they would offer the service for free.

Miller predicted that Starlink would offer enough capacity to make free service work but suggested the next couple of years might involve some shakiness as the service continues building its network.

It’s unclear if other satellite services will be able to deliver free connectivi­ty to a planeful of data- hungry people, something that only JetBlue provides.

“Delta has said it wants to offer Wi- Fi for free, but it knows that would result in much higher usage onboard and it has worried about the ability to handle that volume,” emailed Brett Snyder, who writes the Cranky Flier blog and runs the Cranky Concierge travel- booking service.

Harteveldt predicted that capacity worries would lead most airlines to offer tiers of service: free but slow, cheap but fast enough for work, and pricier but fast enough for video streaming.

And as often happens in air travel, passengers in premium cabins or with sufficiently high frequent- flyer status might not have to pay for the high- end service.

Except for some smaller regional jets that still use ground- based cellular service, in- flight Wi- Fi now relies on satellites in geostation­ary orbit.

 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? At three of the four biggest U. S. airlines, using some chat apps is now free, while the cost of connectivi­ty on a domestic flight has fallen to a flat fee less than $ 10.
GETTY IMAGES At three of the four biggest U. S. airlines, using some chat apps is now free, while the cost of connectivi­ty on a domestic flight has fallen to a flat fee less than $ 10.

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