Getting work done on a plane can be challenging. Even in an ideal scenario where the WiFi works, numerous factors—from your fellow passengers to routing tweaks—can quickly leave you out of luck.
Traveloka, the leading travel-booking app in Southeast Asia, has just completed a comprehensive survey of tech-friendly airlines, ranking 50 international carriers based on WiFi availability, speed, and cost, as well as other connectivity features, such as inset outlets and USB ports. According to its findings, the top three airlines to prioritize for in-flight efficiency are Qatar, Emirates, and Delta, in descending order.
Take that with a grain of salt, though.
For starters, the company's methodology focused only on the top 50 carriers in the world, as ranked by SkyTrax, whose annual list — while authoritative — omits tech-friendly airlines such as United on the basis of other factors, including punctuality and staff friendliness. And while some carriers on the list, such as JetBlue Airways (No. 5), offer WiFi consistently across a majority of their fleets, others, such as Eva Air (No. 10), have WiFi on only half their planes. According to a Traveloka spokesperson, working around such limitations provides an accurate picture of the "best-case scenario" on any of these companies.
Expand the data for each of Traveloka's winners, and you'll see even more complexities come to light. For one thing, you may notice that British Airways (No. 4) offers the fastest service in the top 10, at 20Mbps. Emirates (No. 2), Etihad (No. 9), and Eva, by comparison, are all under 2Mbps. Not great, when you're paying upward of $14 an hour and hoping to put out an office fire.
For just that reason, Routehappy by ATPCO, an aviation data insights company that tracks in-flight amenities for every individual aircraft and cabin, has this week overhauled the way it presents its reporting on this topic.
"Airlines don't see a choice anymore — offering WiFi is a competitive need. The question is more about what you can expect out of your WiFi, rather than if you'll have it at all," says Jason Rabinowitz, the company's director of airline research.
Now, when you search for flights on engines such as Skyscanner or Hipmunk—whose ratings on everything from meals to legroom are powered by Routehappy—you may notice new categorizations for WiFi service. They'll indicate whether the service quality will be strong enough to check emails, support basic web searches, allow faster browsing, or invite video streaming with services such as Netflix. (The feature will roll out gradually across several of Routehappy's partner search engines in the coming months.)
"We're really trying to set expectations for what passengers will be able to do on their specific flights," explained Rabinowitz. "We want to separate the slow WiFi from the faster and the fastest." He points to U.S. carriers Jet Blue, United, Delta, and American Airlines as the most consistent in their offerings.
There's reason to be optimistic. "Airlines are making so many investments in next generation WiFi systems now, it's almost impossible to keep up," Rabinowitz said. "New satellites are being launched, new systems are more capable, and the connectivity gaps are being filled."
Among the good news: Improved satellite coverage over Australia and the South Pacific has brought unprecedented in-flight connectivity to Qantas, Air New Zealand, and Virgin Australia; technologically enhanced networks by Gogo Inc., British Airways, and Lufthansa Group are set to debut before the end of the year, raising speeds from 3G to LTE levels; and even budget carriers such as Spirit and Air Asia are adding fast WiFi to their otherwise stripped-down list of offerings. If reliable (or reliable-ish) WiFi was previously the domain of U.S. airlines, it's now becoming a global perk.