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While in-flight wi-fi is fairly common on domestic US carriers, its availability on flights elsewhere in the world has been growing at a much slower rate, a frustrating issue for frequent travellers who have become reliant on staying connected at all times.

"In-flight internet makes my time in the air equivalent to time in the office,” said North Carolina-based Ramsey Qubein, who flies more than 300,000 miles per year on writing assignments. “When I’m flying overseas, it's frustrating that I cannot access my email. While I relish the time away from the office, it leads to a bit of mayhem upon landing when I am in no mood to handle multiple emails."

Gogo, the leading provider of in-flight internet in the US, began installing a network of ground-based wi-fi antennae throughout the continental US and southern Alaska in 2006, which has been key to its fast growth since the service debuted in 2008. But flights that go over water or over continents without land-based networks must rely on newer systems that link the aircraft to the internet via satellite.

“There are now at least 1,200 commercial aircraft operating in the US with wi-fi access,” said Jon Cobin, the vice president of operations at Gogo. “Outside the US, we estimate that there are only about 100 [commercial] aircraft that offer [any type of] in-flight connectivity.”

Though still in the early stages, these new satellite-powered systems are expected to propel widespread, global in-flight wi-fi access starting in 2013. For example, Lufthansa recently rolled out FlyNet on 25 of its 102 long-haul aircraft — mostly Airbus A330, A340-300, and A340-600 — on flights to US and Canadian destinations. As satellite coverage expands over Asia, Africa and the Middle East later this year, FlyNet will soon be available on the entire Lufthansa long-haul network, spokesman Martin Reicken said.

“We're not there yet in Australia, but we believe in the next two to three years we will have that capability. As soon as that capability is available, you'll see us entering that space," said Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti in a recent Australian Business Traveller interview.

Aurelie Branchereau, a spokeswoman for satellite-based connectivity provider OnAir said Egyptair, Oman Air, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Emirates are currently operating Internet OnAir, but she would not specify how many aircraft had access. She also said that TAM, Singapore Airlines and Hong Kong Airlines are among those who will offer it in the near future.

Currently 11 Norwegian Air Shuttle aircraft have satellite-based internet on board and by the end of the year, 21 aeroplanes will be equipped with a newer satellite wi-fi connection from US-based Row 44, which also provides the service on 75 of Southwest Airlines’ 550 aircraft in the US.

Delta, AirTran and Virgin America have installed the land-based Gogo system on all of their domestic US flights, and American Airlines’ domestic fleet should be fully outfitted by mid-2012. Nearly all other US carriers now offer internet access on some of their aircraft. However, reliance on Gogo’s land-based system means that US airlines will also have to adopt new satellite-based systems in order to provide in-flight wi-fi on international flights.

Would you use in-flight internet access if the airline provided it? In the US, connections cost from $6 to $14 per flight depending on length. What would you be willing to pay? Please leave your comments on our Facebook page.

Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel

 

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