May 29, 2009

Online at 36,000 feet: trying Gogo WiFi on board

Filed under: airlines, travel, twitter — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:22 am

I tried inflight WiFi last week aboard Virgin America. The day I flew happened to be the same day Virgin became the first U.S. airline to offer Internet access across its entire fleet. I live tweeted and uploaded pictures to flickr inflight.

Richard Branson looks serene hereVirgin uses GoGo, which is also available on select Delta, AirTran and American flights. United will be adding it on its p.s. flights between JFK and San Francisco/Los Angeles this summer.

The system worked as advertised: easy to use and reasonably fast. Set up was similar to signing up for a paid hotspot on the ground; I entered my credit card and was online in a minute or so. It costs $9.95 for flights under 3 hours and $12.95 for longer flights.

Speed was equivalent to a lower-tier U.S. home broadband connection. At 903 Kb/s down and 337 Kb/s up, it easily outperformed my 3G iPhone, both on speed and service availability.

From a technology standpoint it’s great. But do I really want it?

I’m really torn on that. I loved being able to chat with friends, check mail and update Twitter on my flight. The answer will really depend on what it does to the social contract we have with our fellow passengers and employers.

On the passenger front, will Internet access serve as a great adult pacifier or introduce more obnoxiousness? It’s easy to see people getting wrapped up in online activities and complaining less. The opposite is equally likely: a friend complained that a passenger near him on a transcontinental redeye was playing a voice-based game with others online. (Virgin policies prohibit using voice services; I didn’t get a chance to see how many of them, if any, are actually blocked.)

On the employer front, what will expecations be for inflight WiFi? I’ve used my flight time to work on presentations, edit pictures, write blog posts (this post was written on a United non-WiFi flight), stare out the window and contemplate life. Having a big block of time without a lot of distractions can be very productive; some of my best product ideas have been formulated on a plane. Having the option to connect is great, but I don’t think I’d like being required to be online the whole time.

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May 4, 2009

A wow experience from United Airlines. Wow.

Filed under: airlines, customer service, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:16 pm

It’s rare these days that a company impresses with customer service. It’s even rarer when that company is an airline, especially an American airline. That’s the experience I had last week when I was flying home from New Orleans on United Airlines.

It started out pretty awful. A few hours before my flight I received a text message that my flight was delayed. Then another. By the time I arrived at the airport, my originating flight had been delayed more than two hours, ensuring that I’d miss my connecting flight in Denver. As it got close to the new departure time, we were told that there was a mechanical issue. After a string of “we’re waiting for an update” announcements, we finally boarded three hours later when a new plane arrived.

Based on experience, I was braced for the worst when I arrived in Denver: a 90 minute wait for a harried customer service rep who would look for every excuse to not put me up for the night. Before leaving New Orleans, I’d tweeted “United already knows who will misconnect. What are the odds they’ll be proactive and have hotel vouchers waiting?” I would’ve placed them at 1000:1, best case.

But that’s exactly what happened. After we landed the gate agent came on board and announced that they had prepared packets with hotel and meal vouchers for everyone who was stranded. Three people were staffing the desk, despite the fact that we arrived around 2 a.m. They were polite and directed us to the hotel shuttles.

Within 20 minutes of landing in San Francisco the next day, there was an apology in my email box for the inconvenience. A link in the email invited me to select from a list of appreciation items, including a $250 travel certificate.

The immediacy and the proactive nature of the response made a very positive impression. It’s great to see companies using IT in this way.

The Silver is the New Black Theme. Blog at


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