Sky-high Wi-Fi: Canada's airlines roll out more internet

Air Canada and WestJet expanding wireless access, but Canada lags behind U.S.

Flight Plan WiFi

Wi-Fi internet access on flights is in demand and Canada's two largest airlines - Air Canada and WestJet - are expanding their network capabilities to meet it. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)



In-flight internet service is becoming more prevalent on Canadian airlines, but still lags behind U.S. airlines in terms of access.

Canada's two largest airlines — Air Canada and WestJet — plan to outfit a majority of their North American flights with Wi-Fi access this year.

Air Canada, which began rolling out Wi-Fi service in 2014, has outfitted 120 out of 129 of its mainline flight of single-aisle aircraft with Wi-Fi capability, says Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick. The remaining nine aircraft are due to be finished in March.

The company also plans to add Wi-Fi to its wide-body international aircraft for flights between continents, though the airline could not provide further details. 

"Customer response has been positive, which is why we are going ahead and expanding Wi-Fi to our international fleet," Fitzpatrick told CBC News in an email.

Air Canada

Air Canada and WestJet are both outfitting more of their aircraft with internet access this year. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

WestJet began to roll out WestJet Connect, its own Wi-Fi and entertainment system, in 2015. The airline offers Wi-Fi service on 30 per cent of its aircraft, and expects to have the service on a majority of its aircraft by the end of the year, says WestJet spokeswoman Lauren Stewart.

"We had heard from customers over the years — this is something they'd be interested in," said Stewart. "This is something they were asking for."

Wi-Fi internet access on airlines for both networks, and on airlines around the world, only functions at cruising altitude.

Other notable Canadian airlines — such as Porter, Air Transat and Sunwing — do not offer internet service on flights.

U.S. ahead in offering Wi-Fi service

A report by Routehappy, a flight information service, shows that 78 per cent of seat-miles on U.S. airlines have internet access, or have access being rolled out, compared to 24 per cent for the rest of the world. Seat-miles are a measure of airline carrying capacity and are the number of seats multiplied by miles flown.

For a Canadian comparison, on an average travel day, Air Canada only has Wi-Fi access on 18.53 per cent of its seat-miles, partially because it does not have Wi-Fi on its long international flights, according to Routehappy. 

Large American airlines such as Delta and United offer Wi-Fi on more than 80 per cent of their seat-miles.

No figure was available for total availablity of Wi-Fi on all Canadian airlines.

Jason Rabinowitz, Routehappy's data manager, said the gap between the U.S. and the world is largely because of the Gogo network infrastructure. Gogo is a ground-to-air Wi-Fi network that services several of North America's biggest airlines, including Air Canada, American, Delta and United.

Jason Rabinowitz, Routehappy data manager

Jason Rabinowitz, Routehappy data manager, said internet service on Canadian airlines is improving. (Routehappy)

Rabinowitz said that the service has allowed the U.S. to get ahead of other countries in airline Wi-Fi.

"The U.S. airlines have the distinct advantage of having Gogo's air-to-ground network, which has been in place since about 2008," he said. "It's a unique network that doesn't exist right now anywhere else in the world."

Air Canada began to use Gogo in 2014 as the network expanded its range to the southern portion of Canada.

Another challenge for airlines adding Wi-Fi service is the cost of installation.

"The numbers are a little bit muddied, but the install, depending on the system, can be anywhere from a couple dozen thousand dollars to upwards of $100,000 per aircraft," said Rabinowitz. "It's a very, very significant hurdle for the airlines to really budget for."

Despite Canada, and the rest of the world, being well behind the U.S. in Wi-Fi access, Rabinowitz said Canadians have reasons to be optimistic.

"The odds of getting Wi-Fi on Canadian carriers are getting better every day," he said. "Now is better than ever as far as Wi-Fi goes in Canadian airspace."

Similar costs

One area where Canadian airlines are closer to their American counterparts is pricing for Wi-Fi service. Passengers pay about as much as — and sometimes less — than they would for internet access on flights by U.S. carriers. 

Delta Airlines

Like many American airlines, Delta utilizes the Gogo network to provide internet access on domestic flights. (Jeff Haynes/Reuters)

The Gogo network used by Air Canada and several large American airlines usually sets rates consistently across North America, according to Gogo spokesman Steve Nolan. Rates for use of Gogo are at $5 US per hour and $16 US for a day pass.

WestJet uses its own satellite technology for WestJet Connect and charges $5 Cdn per half-hour and $8 Cdn for a full-flight pass.

The capabilities of the two network connections is also similar. Both WestJet Connect and Gogo offer access to email, web browsing and social media. 

However, higher-bandwidth applications like video streaming are not yet possible on the two networks.

WestJet Connect service does offer its own complimentary package of movies and television to view on electronic devices through use of servers aboard the plane. Air Transat has a similar service. 

The Gogo network also offers an analogous service on several airlines, though not Air Canada.

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