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Wi-Fi available on two-thirds of U.S. air routes

The ability to get work done on a computer or post to Facebook while in flight is rapidly becoming a reality for American fliers. Nowadays, they have a decent chance of staying connected with onboard wireless Internet service on about two-thirds of the miles they fly on U.S. carriers, according to a study released Monday.

Availability of Wi-Fi is rapidly increasing on planes big and small, according to the study by Routehappy, which rates flights on their amenities for passengers. But the quality of the Wi-Fi connection and how much it costs continues to vary widely.

And despite all the talk of staying connected at 30,000 feet and Wi-Fi being a must-have feature for airlines, passengers are mostly unwilling to pay for the connection. Just 6.7 percent of passengers use Wi-Fi when it’s available, or 10 people on a plane of 150, according to financial reports of Itasca, Ill.-based Gogo, the largest provider of in-flight Wi-Fi in the U.S.

“We all want Wi-Fi, but it’s been pretty much proven that people won’t pay for it,” said Joe Brancatelli, a business travel writer and founder of JoeSentMe.com. “That said, I can’t see a future without Wi-Fi on every airplane.

“It’s a strange conundrum.”

Still, 2014 marked the year Wi-Fi availability took off, Routehappy said. It found fliers worldwide have at least some chance of Wi-Fi on about 24 percent of the miles they fly.

“When you consider the sheer number of flights on a global scale and the number of airlines around the world, that’s a pretty substantial number,” said Jason Rabinowitz, data research manager at Routehappy.

That rate is markedly higher among U.S. airlines, which offer at least “some” chance of Wi-Fi on 66 percent of the miles they fly, the study found. Routehappy defines “some chance” as up to one-third of a given fleet being equipped with Wi-Fi. Chances of having Wi-Fi increase dramatically with larger planes, called mainline aircraft, 82 percent of which have Wi-Fi in the U.S.

The rapid growth is thanks in large part to Gogo’s land-based network providing the connections in the U.S., Rabinowitz said. More advanced systems are satellite-based, including those by Gogo, and capable of offering Wi-Fi on international flights and over water.

Among U.S. carriers, Routehappy found that Delta Air Lines, an early adopter, offers by far the most flights with Wi-Fi, with Southwest Airlines and Virgin America rating highly for the percentage of flights offering the service.

United has been a laggard but is quickly ramping up, adding the service at a faster pace than any other airline over the past 18 months, the study showed.

It already has the most international planes with Wi-Fi and offers what Routehappy describes as the best quality Wi-Fi, capable of streaming video.

United Chief Revenue Officer Jim Compton told analysts last week that the airline has installed Wi-Fi on 451 of its mainline aircraft and has begun installing it on its regional jets, smaller planes that feed its hubs. Its Wi-Fi installations will be largely complete by summer, he said.

Meanwhile, American Airlines offers “better” Wi-Fi – akin to 4G smartphone data speeds – on its entire Airbus narrow body fleet, which equates to 300 planes. It, too, is quickly adding the service and announced in December it would be adding Wi-Fi to 250 of its regional jets.

“In the United States, we see almost all mainline and even larger regional aircraft will be outfitted with Wi-Fi relatively soon,” Rabinowitz said. “2014 was really the hump domestic airlines got over in offering Wi-Fi.”

Gogo said Monday it was on track this year for a record number of Wi-Fi installations, mostly regional jets and international aircraft.

And foreign carriers are beginning to add, or at least experiment, with it, he said.

“The availability of Wi-Fi across the globe is definitely taking off within the next few years,” he said.