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High-Flying Wi-Fi Tests Prices and Patience

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Call this a heads-up and a bit of a caveat emptor, too. Gogo, the operator of in-flight Internet service for U.S. airlines other than Southwest, bumped its rates in September 2012 and now offers what feels like an arbitrary fee schedule. The firm also announced a significant improvement in bandwidth last year — from a raw rate of about 3 Mbps to nearly 10 Mbps — which should make the occasionally pokey service better.

Gogo used to offer a per-flight rate for roughly $10 to $13 depending on duration, and a cheaper rate for handheld devices, like an iPhone, but no discount for tablets. However, if you paid the more expensive rate, you could switch among devices.

Now, Gogo no longer offers per-flight prices. Rather, they offer 30-minute, 60-minute, and 2-hour plans, plus other time periods for as much or more money as the previous price for a full flight. Colleagues have sent me the rates they have seen on trips in the last week, and they were all over the map (literally), including a “three hours for the price of two” special. On a recent flight on Alaska Airlines to the east coast, I was offered 24 hours for $18.95… for a 4.5-hour flight.

The switch to a 24-hour rate presumes that someone has multiple flight segments, which isn’t unreasonable. But the likelihood of having all segments on planes with Wi-Fi access is slim. The main exception is Delta, which has equipped its extensive fleet; a few airlines with smaller footprints, like Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, have done the same. (Some Alaska planes that ply remote routes lack Internet service. But they come with moose spotting alerts.) The 24-hour rate is also irritating if one has just a single flight, or if the aircraft lacks electrical outlets to keep your laptop alive for anything like the duration of the flight.

One way to reduce costs is to pre-purchase access. Gogo lists a $14 rate for pre-purchased 24-hour access, which can be redeemed during a flight by logging into an account. Apparently, any service you buy lets you switch your active session among devices. I swapped from laptop to iPhone and back by logging in again and activating service on each device.

Gogo also offers a $40-per-month unlimited plan for an individual airline; $50 a month buys unlimited service across all Gogo-equipped aircraft.

Gogo is a privately held company, and doesn’t disclose its financials, usage, or other data. It’s hard to know whether it’s struggling for revenue, which some reports indicate it splits with airlines. Perhaps the company has discovered that users willing to pay have enough elasticity in what they’ll spend that driving away some customers is outweighed by overall increased revenue.

Whatever the reason, unpredictable and inconsistent pricing seems capricious rather than a useful business move. Perhaps Gogo needs to Stopstop and find a simpler solution.

 

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