In-flight: Taking the Southwest/Row44 wifi for a ride


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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

A few hours later I got a reply from someone on Southwest’s social media team offering to refund the fee.

https://twitter.com/SouthwestVerity/status/466310575421947904

That’s not what I was after and I declined their offer.

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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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

8 Comments

  1. I’m not sure what you mean about the satellite service requires downloading software in advance on a mobile device? I fly Southwest frequently, and have loved the streaming Dish tv while in air. It’s free, and I didn’t have to download anything. Open my iPad, connect to the wifi, and it just works. When you maximize the video, it removes all banners and other content as well. I had no issues with connectivity or buffering.

    I can’t comment on the inflight wifi speed, as I’ve only used that a few times on cross country flights (and when it was only $5 a day during its introductory period). I remember it being slower than normal, but not unbearable. Perfectly fine for sending emails and such.

    1. Just using wifi doesn’t require any downloads. If you want to stream the TV you need their app/player installed on an iOS or Android device. I’ll edit the post to include a screenshot of what they said about that in the email they sent me.

      1. Hmm interesting. Again, I’ve never downloaded anything special for my iPhone or iPad. I’ve always just watched the streaming tv through my internet browser. It doesn’t connect through to the internet unless you pay for the wifi, but just opening the browser has always allowed me to navigate through the “free” options, including live streaming the tv right there in the browser. This is the first I’ve heard of downloading an app or alternate software.

  2. The wifi on WN is notoriously poor (tons of postings on this) and that is why they are standing by to refund your money. It’s been an ongoing issue now for a couple of years. They really should just have gone with Gogo. Most of the time I can’t even load a simple gmail page.

    There is no way to create an account so you have to enter your billing info every time (and I imagine that is why you are paying per each device login, not an account login).

    Also – it’s only free for A-List preferred, not basic A-List.

  3. I tried the Southwest Wifi last week – It was horrendous – Horrible speeds..Regarding the streaming – They tell you that you need to download their app – They even send you an email ahead of time to do so – This is false – All their app is doing is redirecting you to a URL to watch the movies – An app is not required

  4. Southwest has some really unique benefits and is not a bad option for domestic trips. If one gets 2 of their CCs and 10K points through other means such as airfare/hotel/car rental/etc that person will get a companion pass. Then as an A-list member [the top tier] you get 4 free drink chits for every 10 one-way trips you do and free wifi.

    Then the earn side as an A-list member with a WN co-branded cc for biz select fares is a good deal IMO. For every $500 worth of Biz Select Fare as top tier A list member using the WN credit card earns $185.71 “cash back” on the redemption side or roughly 37% cash back assuming you burn points on wanna get anywhere fares.

    Is my math off?

  5. I agree with some of the other comments posted- never had to download any app on iPad and Galaxy S4. I regularly watch TV and browse internet without any App. Unless SW made changes in last week.

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