With more than 500 planes fitted with the Row44 in-flight internet kit a flight on Southwest these days is quite likely to mean an opportunity to be online while in the air. With my most recent work trip including a segment on Southwest that also meant an opportunity for me to try out the satellite-based service and see how it fares in real life, at least for an hour or so. Southwest sent me an email a couple days prior to my flight letting me know that there would be both internet and live TV available on the plane. I’m a fan of that, especially because the TV service requires downloading software in advance on a mobile device, though I can see that getting annoying after a while.
My flight was LaGuardia to Nashville which is booked at 2:35 and scheduled for under two hours in the air. I understand that connectivity is supposed to be available gate-to-gate but I was using my laptop, not a smaller device, so that meant I couldn’t try out the service during the beginning and end of the flight. That’s not generally a trip long enough that I’d buy the service on; at $8/day it is a bit too pricey for me for less than two hours of usage. But I wanted to have the experience so I ponied up the cash and logged in.
The portal is pretty cool and the purchase process went very smoothly. No complaints about that, other than that I couldn’t transfer the service from one device to another (at least not that was apparent to me). There’s also the part where they put a banner at the top of every page, overlaid on the content you’re browsing. I’m not a huge fan, but I understand that it is there to allow users to get back to the portal if they want to switch to TV or something like that.
Ultimately, what I really care about is the performance of the service when I’m using the connection. And while I know that there are reasons to not put full faith in the Ookla Speedtest service for satellite-based services the results I got here early in the flight were not promising.
The good news is that the performance wasn’t really that horrible. But it also was not great. It was slow. I sent emails, I browsed some websites but nothing particularly image-intensive. I even got two blog posts published, though one of them did fail the upload at one point.
I can forgive a hiccup in the service every now and then. I get that I’m in a plane 40,000 feet above the ground traveling 500+ miles/hour and that I’m on the internet. But the performance on this was sluggish overall, plus the hiccups. If I absolutely had to get an email sent or check on something it would be somewhat usable but it is was not to a level of service I was happy about paying for at that rate. Maybe if I had a longer flight or an onward connection such that I got to use it more I’d feel better about the price, but even then it was more time using a slow service. It was not a great user experience. And after the flight I shared my disappointment on Twitter:
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) May 13, 2014
A few hours later I got a reply from someone on Southwest’s social media team offering to refund the fee.
That’s not what I was after and I declined their offer.
@SouthwestVerity Thanks for the offer. Not bad enough that I'd ask for a refund but just not good enough that I'd buy again for short flt.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) May 14, 2014
I got some value for the money I paid. The service mostly worked, just not at a level I think is worth paying for on the short flight. So I likely won’t buy it again on a short trip, but it was not so bad that I felt appropriate asking for a refund. Such is the way things go some days.
I like that A-List members get it for free. And on the off chance that I’m flying a longer Southwest-operated itinerary maybe I’ll try again. But I generally don’t see much value in paying for the service on shorter flights anyways and the overall service quality was low enough that I’m just not that impressed with the product.
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