Friday, 3 July 2015

Online in the Air: Wifi on United to LA

When I flew United Airlines' new Dreamliner aircraft from Melbourne to Los Angeles last year, it was the first time I'd used in-flight wifi on a long-haul flight.

In fact I'd only used in-flight wifi once before, on a short flight between LA and Las Vegas in 2013.

Because it could only be used at that stage when the seatbelt sign was off between takeoff and landing, I think I only had use of it for 30 minutes or so.

Still, it was amazingly novel to be able to text and tweet while in the air.

In the middle of an exchange with my travel writer colleague Nikki Bayley, I realised that we were both in flight at the same time as we were chatting. "This is the future!" I thought.

Well, sort of. It's been much easier to provide in-flight wifi over land than sea, using base stations. Hence the prevalence of wifi on flights across the continental USA, and its lower incidence on international flights relying on satellite signals.

So the United wifi, all the way across the Pacific from Australia to the USA, was a genuine novelty to me. Though I didn't have a lot of confidence in its speed or reliability.

As it turned out, I was wrong about that. I logged in once we were aloft, and the signal remained reliable and reasonably fast for the entire 14-hour journey.

There was an initial frisson of excitement as my iPhone connected and some delayed text messages popped up. Interestingly, one of them was from a woman in Queensland, to whom I'd recently sold my old iPhone 4S via eBay.

She had a problem: though I'd wiped the data off the old phone, I'd neglected to remove it from my "Find iPhone" group, which allows the user to track and disable lost or stolen phones.

Not realising that I was communicating with her from mid-air, she explained the problem and texted a screenshot of instructions from Apple, explaining how to remedy the situation.

A few minutes later, having performed some tech magic via the Internet, I'd released her phone and she texted to let me know it was now working fine.

It was then I texted back, mentioning I was chatting to her from a Dreamliner high above the Pacific Ocean. I didn't hear back; maybe she thought I was joking.


For the rest of the trip I dabbled with the online access on and off, between watching a movie and trying to get some sleep. The Dreamliner is a great plane by the way - the marketing blurb about its moister air and larger windows letting in more natural light (thus helping ward off jetlag) turned out to be true.

It seemed strange to have access to the online outside world while on such a long flight. In one way it was a little disappointing, as if the strange other-worldly magic of such lengthy airborne journeys had been diminished.

On the other hand, it was great to be able to talk to people and tweet the odd comment about the onboard experience. I tweet mainly about travel after all; what more fundamental travel experience to tweet about than an epic long-haul flight?

Wifi aboard a United long-haul flight costs US$16 for a 24-hour period; read more about it here.

Disclosure: On this trip I travelled courtesy of United Airlines and the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board.