Putting the Southwest Airlines gate-to-gate Wi-Fi to the test

Can you really connect to Wi-Fi before takeoff and stay connected all the way to your destination? That's what Southwest now promises. A first-day test of how well it worked.

Southwest Airlines.

When I flew to Las Vegas on Southwest Airlines on Tuesday, I had to do the same old routine of turning off my electronic devices. But for my return trip on Thursday, life was dramatically different. Southwest changed to allow devices to remain on, as a new Federal Aviation Administration rule allows . It also became the first airline to allow "gate to gate" Wi-Fi . For me, it was the perfect opportunity to put that promise to the test.

Could I really connect while I was on the ground, before leaving my departure gate and maintain my Internet connection all the way to when I landed and reached the gate of my destination, John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif.? For the most part, yes. There was trouble at first that cleared, and things got better and better as I went on.

A rough start
My test began when I settled into my seat at 2 p.m. PT Thursday, which was the first full day of Southwest's new policy. Unlike some other airlines with Wi-Fi, Southwest's service can send and receive Internet data even when the plane is on the ground. The only barrier, until now, has been that our devices were required to be off when the airplane doors have closed, until reaching that famous 10,000-foot level.

Logging into the service on my iPad was easy. But after getting my confirmation, the data wouldn't flow. E-mail, Twitter, browsing the Web -- nothing was working. It was the same situation with my iPhone, where I'd also signed-up for the service.

We left the gate at 2:05 p.m. and were quickly stuck on a taxiway, the pilot announcing a 10- to 15-minute backlog for takeoffs because of bad weather. But by 2:24 p.m., that disappointment was eased as the data started to flow. My first tweet finally left my iPad -- a first tweet by means of a device that only days before was required to be off -- using the airplane's own Wi-Fi, while on a taxiway.

It was historic. I should have tweeted something like "One small tweet from me; one giant leap for all of us." Instead, I just noted that it was finally working:

It wasn't working well, though. Moments after that tweet went out, the data died again. It took another 10 minutes until it started to flow again, at first enough so that my Clash of Clans game would load, and then a few minutes later, I was able to use Twitter regularly, get to my e-mail and do some browsing.

Houston, we have takeoff
At 2:46 p.m., we took off. I know this so precisely, because I was able to do another personal first, record video of my takeoff without some flight attendant yelling at me. I even shared it out to Twitter:

Now, I've had no burning desire previously to record my takeoffs and share them in this way, and I don't really expect to do much of this in the future. But it was pretty awesome to be able to do. It's also nice to know that I can take pictures of places I'm flying over on takeoff and landing that are often interesting, without getting into trouble.

10,000 feet? Just another altitude
When we hit 10,000 feet at 2:49 p.m., my data was pretty solid. The pilot came on to say that we could now use our laptops which, until that point, hadn't been allowed. (Larger, heavier devices need to be stowed on take-off and landing still, not for electronic reasons but because they're larger and heavier.) At 3:17 p.m., we were descending. Anyone with laptops had to put them away, a flight attendant said. But then he added that new twist -- that we could keep our handheld devices going. "You can keep them out," he said, and after a short pause, exclaimed, "And on!"

It's a whole new world for flight attendants too, it seems.

My data continued to remain good for the rest of the trip, allowing me to share video of our approach to and landing at John Wayne Airport:

We arrived at the gate at 3:30 p.m., with my data continuing to work. In fact, it was so good that I didn't even think to turn on my cell signal until I started exiting the plane.

Extra time gain, by the numbers
So what did the new gate-to-gate service gain for me? Some figures:

  • Internet time at 10,000 feet (old system): 2:49 p.m. to 3:17 p.m., 28 minutes total
  • Gate-to-gate time: 2:05 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., 85 minutes total
  • Time Internet actually worked: 2:33 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., 57 minutes total

Before the advent of the new policy, I'd have been only able to use Wi-Fi for about one-third of the time I was actually inside the plane, 28 minutes of the entire 85-minute gate-to-gate experience.

After the change, if all had worked right, I'd have nearly tripled the usual Internet access time for this particular flight. As it turned out, I still gained twice the time.

As a regular Southwest flyer, most of my trips are short, about two hours or less. It was interesting to see how this new system really would give me more usable work time, assuming all goes well, and assuming I need Internet access as much as possible.

Obviously, for longer flights, the extra time might be appreciated but less noticeable -- and thus perhaps less of a selling point for airlines that don't offer gate-to-gate access.

Another plus for the Southwest flyer like me is that paying $8 "per day" for what often is only 30 to 45 minutes of Internet time on short flights can feel expensive and perhaps not worth the bother. But the new gate-to-gate service, potentially doubling or tripling that Internet time, may tip things for me and others.

There is a downside, though. You pay per device, so unless you want to pay twice -- for a tablet and for a laptop -- it's go tablet if you want the extended time or go laptop with the usual 10,000-feet restriction.

Airplane mode and other things to consider
On my flight, as remains the case with any flight in the US, your device needs to be in "airplane mode." Airplane mode really means "no cellular signal" mode. By default, putting a phone or tablet into airplane mode usually disables all connections: cellular, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth. But you can toggle Wi-Fi on, with airplane mode still working to leave cellular data off. And that's fine. Wi-Fi on is good; cellular on is bad.

Still, it can be confusing. When we were above 10,000 feet, the pilot came on to say that laptops could be used, and our existing devices already on could continue to be used, but there could be "no data back-and-forth" transmitted. Wi-Fi, of course, does transmit data back and forth. What the pilot really meant was this: no cellular data transmitted back and forth directly between our devices and the ground. Only connections relayed through the Southwest system are allowed.

As for laptops, it's interesting that an iPad that's about the same size as my Surface Pro is allowed, simply because it doesn't have a keyboard on it. Presumably, the Surface Pro would be OK if I removed the keyboard, and the iPad wouldn't be allowed if I attached one. "Laptop" more or less seems to mean anything with a full keyboard attached.

In the end, I liked the gate-to-gate option, as well as just being able to have my devices out, if I want them. Next to me, a seatmate seemed pretty happy to continue listening to music stored on his phone. Elsewhere, others clearly continued to make use of their devices.

The oddest thing was just trying to shake the feeling I was doing something wrong. After years of being told to put devices away, being welcomed to keep them running was a liberating but odd feeling. But I'm sure I'll get used to it.

You can learn more about the new Southwest system here and also see this FAQ from CNET about the new FAA rules for devices on airlines in general.

 

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