Thursday, October 08, 2009

Down to Earth -- the other side of inflight WiFi

I'm back on the ground today and have a few more comments about Southwest Airlines WiFi offering. I still think it is a wonderful option, but there are a few downsides.

The first downside is that there are no AC seat power ports, so when your battery is done, so are you. As Southwest points out, they have recharging stations at their gates. I've never had any trouble getting a recharge at a Southwest gate when I needed one. In fact at my home airport, Sacramento, we have free airport-wide WiFi so it is a pretty sweet deal waiting for a flight at the Southwest gates. But I digress.

Another downside is that each and every web page I opened was framed with a fairly wide strip across the top. This top frame allowed me to return to the Southwest-Yahoo portal, and did give some current flight info like the altitude, but it was entirely too big and intrusive, especially when I was paying real money for the privilege. I did think the Southwest-Yahoo portal itself was nice, and once logged on, it the portal itself could be ignored.

The content is filtered, though I didn't encounter a problem. This is a mixed downside. I really don't want to be subjected to someone next to me talking loudly on VOIP or surfing porn, but like all content filtering, it is not perfect, so be forewarned. I didn't have any trouble doing anything I wanted to do. That included watching some news videos, Yahoo IM, email (POP3 and SMTP -- not relegated to Web mail), and flight tracking (with Southwest's own portal and also my favorite flight tracking sites).

The last downside is an unwieldy log in process. First you have to give you name, email (for sending the receipt), and agree to the terms of service. Once you do that you have to enter your credit card info including security code and full address. This is a real pain in the air. How much easier would it be to be able to pre-register your credit card with Southwest for this purpose, and then log in, agree to the price, agree to the terms of service and be good to go. I found it very cumbersome to log in from a cramped airline seat on a dim, battery powered screen. They type was small, gray and for security the cc number was obscured by dots. This was good for your seat partner having a hard time seeing what was going on, but it also made it difficult to enter the proper info, all the while the battery was draining its precious minutes. I had pre-stored my cc number in an encrypted file and memorized the date and security code. With my pre-planning I didn't have to actually pull out a card and I did that part via cut and paste, but it still wasn't a particularly easy maneuver.

That about wraps up the things I felt could have been better. I wish I had a way to give this feedback directly to Southwest Airlines. It is meant to be constructive. Still, no matter what the drawbacks were, the benefits of having WiFi in flight were greater. It was a wonderful experience, and just like I've sought out airlines that check at least one bag for free, offer in-flight TV, and offer WiFi and/or recharging stations at the gates, I undoubtedly would prefer to have the option of in-flight WiFi. According to Southwest, they should be offering WiFi for the entire fleet sometime in the first quarter 2010. There is no plan to offer in-flight AC seat power ports.

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