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In-flight WiFi on Southwest Airlines: worth it for business

Southwest Airlines WiFi logo

If you see this when boarding, you're in luck!

I had the pleasure of flying this past weekend on a Southwest Airlines plane equipped with the airline’s in-flight WiFi system. Despite my business travel in the last two years, I’ve never encountered a flight which had it. I jumped at the opportunity to get a little bit of work done during a long flight!

Southwest In-flight WiFi landing page

Southwest In-flight WiFi landing page

Once the plane is at 10,000 feet, the height at which “portable electronic devices” can be used, you’ll be able to connect to the “SouthwestWiFi” wireless network. There’s a limited selection of games available without paying, as is some kind of shopping I didn’t bother to investigate (probably just Skymall). There’s also a neat flight tracker that shows estimated flight time remaining and a map showing where the plane is.

The thing everyone wants is real Internet. Southwest is charging $5 per flight for it. I had some work to do over the weekend, and I much preferred to get it done before I started said weekend. In-flight WiFi was the answer.

Southwest Airline In-Flight WiFi GPS tracker

Ah, the great circle route.

I whipped out the credit card and went for it. This was where I hit my first frustration. I didn’t want to have to dig out my credit card and input my credit card information. There’s already not much room on planes these days, and putzing around in my backpack on the floor to get my wallet while balancing an open laptop on my lap is precarious enough without a large sleeping elderly lady and a Tetris-enthralled girlfriend on either side of me. I would hope that Southwest would somehow tie in the Rapid Rewards login from its web site to the in-flight WiFi payment system.

Of course, one of my first non-work related sites to visit was Pittco.

Southwest Airlines in-flight WiFi Pittco.org screenshot

Pittco.org on a plane?

I found the speeds to be sufficient to get some moderate browsing and tweeting done.

Speedtest.net wouldn’t load for me. I presume it was blocked to prevent curious geeks from overloading the connection with useless bytes. However, I did my own speed testing using my web server and found a pretty solid 512 Kbps connection behind it. Ping times of approximately four seconds proved that the system uses satellite instead of ground-based directed cellular systems like many other airlines use (e.g. gogo). Using ye old ping to my own web server, the times for a round-trip min/avg/max/stddev were 707.559/4123.338/14299.332/4251.890 ms.

My laptop was assigned an IP in the 184.169.23.0/24 range with a default gateway of the standard 192.168.1.1. All of the traceroutes I did, including but not limited to google.com and cad.cx, put traffic onto Level3 in Las Vegas and onto Los Angeles before heading out to the destination after approximately eight hops, five of which were internal and the other three lacked FQDNs.

It’s not without some criticism, though. I dislike the toolbar that is inject into every non-HTTPS page. This toolbar is certainly useful, but not when it’s on every bloody page I’m visiting. I’d rather have a separate tiny popup window showing that information. It’d be neat if that window used the browser’s built-in notification system to tell me how much time remains in the flight every 10 minutes or so. Moreover, it needs a better way for notifying the user when it’s getting turned off (rather than just stopping working even though the network is still up), as well as better statistics (how many people are using it, how much bandwidth is being used in at least percentage). If I’d have paid $5 for it and it barely worked because so many people were using it, would I get a refund? Those kind of quality control questions are something that I think Southwest needs to address.

Also, there always is the issue of security. A malicious passenger very well could set up a similarly named access point using a secondary wireless card, collect financial details, and route an unsuspecting passenger over the legitimate connection and there’s be no way to catch them before the plane hits the ground. It would behoove Southwest to consider how better they can secure this payment workflow. Come talk to me, LUV, I’ve got some ideas!

Lastly, the service is vulnerable to good old fashioned DNS proxying. If you know what that means, you know the significance of it. If you don’t, don’t worry, it’s not a security thing and you have nothing to worry about. Well, except bandwidth contention!

Overall, it was a useful experience. I doubt $5 would be worth it for personal use, other than as an extravagance to enable chatting or simple 2005-era speed-wise browsing. For businesses, though, a $5 expense which can turn into $100+/hour billable time on a plane is completely worth it.

P.S. I discovered that Android, at least Cyanogenmod 7.1, can enable its WiFi antenna while the phone is in airplane mode.

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