Initial Experience With Southwest Airlines In-Flight Wifi

This past week I was called upon to give a demonstration at a TV station in San Diego. The exercise involved flying from Houston to LAX and spending a day in our Burbank office getting the demo gear ready to roll. The next day an associate and I would drive down to San Diego to make the presentation.

For various reasons I don’t often fly Southwest Airlines, but it just happened that they were the best choice this time around. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the outbound flight was equipped to offer in-flight wifi.

In-flight wifi is not exactly new. I think that it’s been offered by various airlines for about 18 months. Living in Houston as I do I most often fly Continental Airlines. As fine an airline as they are, they are not exactly a leader in implementing in-flight wifi.

Each time I find myself in a coach class seat I am reminded of how much I admire my HP Mini 5102 netbook. It’s the prefect size for bringing productivity back into coach class. It’s small enough to share the tray with a coffee without any danger that I’ll be wearing that coffee upon landing.

During the flight the wifi was left turned off until we hit 10,000 feet. Once they turned it in on I logged in and was met by a captive portal offering a login screen. They ask $5 for connectivity, which seems fair given the three hour duration of my flight to LAX. It’s cheaper than buying a mixed drink on-board.

Having made the payment I was allowed to browse locations beyond the login screen. However, a Southwest Airlines banner remained at the top of the web browser the entire duration of the session. It stayed there even if I opened multiple windows, or multiple tabs.

On my old netbook (HP 2140) with a screen size of 1024 x 600 pixels such banners were seriously annoying. On the Mini 5102 with a larger screen, they’re much less intrusive. Even so I found that the banner caused a problem using Google Reader. The page was somewhat mangled and not really usable.

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There’s really no reason for such a banner to be persistently displayed. It’s not like their branding needs the help…I’m already on the airplane! That anything they do interferes with the use of the service is working against their own self-interest by devaluing the service.

I noted that Skype would not even login over the SWA wifi. The Skype client that was already running on my netbook didn’t even show by buddy list. Nor could I use Skype IM.

In contrast, my Twitter client (Seemsic Desktop) worked just fine. When I tweeted about Skype not working Aswath Rao responded and asked if I could try his Enthinnai service.

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After some initial fumbling with an OpenID login I found that I could connect to Enthinnai. Aswath tried to establish a voice chat over the service but lacking for a headset I thought better of it and disabled voice chat. It was a completely full aircraft and I didn’t want to be the jerk who started to have a “phone call” in public.

Some aspect of the SWA banner or frame structure interfered with Enthinnai such that I could not engage in a text based chat session with Aswath.

Over the course of the 3 hour flight I logged into our corporate VPN and used Outlook to check my company email. I checked my personal email via the web, worked on some blog related goodies and spent some time in the VUC irc channel on Freenode.Net.

I didn’t bother trying to conduct any performance tests. It was fast enough to be useful, which was all that mattered. I did feel that there was considerable latency to the connection, but nothing that proved to be a problem.

Mine was an early morning flight so I suspect that very few people were using the wifi. Many in my immediate vicinity seemed to prefer sleeping.

The service might be more convenient if you could pay for it when you book your flight, and simply be given a token for logging into the captive portal. That would spare me having to get out a credit card and filling out a login while on-board the aircraft. It would be a little more secure, and allow the flight and wifi to be on the same bill for expense purposes.

Of course, for that to be practical SWA is going to have to install wifi on more of their aircraft. It’s not yet widespread, as I found out later in the week when my flight home did not offer the service.

There’s no doubt in my mind that in-flight wifi is a treat and a pleasure. For a flight of any significant duration it’s certainly worth the $5 that Southwest charges.

  • What was the cost? Was it worth the cost in your opinion?

    • $5 for the three hour flight. Yes, I think it was worthwhile. It was less than the cost of a mixed drink, and more productive use of time.