Terror at 30,000 feet: I can’t get the WiFi to work

The woman on the seatback screen makes it look so easy. Just grab your iPad, plug in your headphones and connect. But it’s not. that way for everyone. (Geof Wheelwright photo for Geekwire)

SOMEWHERE OVER MEMPHIS – I’ve never been a fan of tech support. Perhaps it comes from having survived the most grueling, intense experience that anyone who has ever tried to provide tech support has endured. Those moments came years ago when I had to provide tech support to my pre-teen boys after their computer crashed during a crucial moment in a computer game – and when my then-teenage daughter’s massive and carefully-assembled digital song collection seemed to disappear.

So when I was on a flight from Seattle to New Orleans earlier this month and decided to take the tempting plunge into buying WiFi as we flew over Memphis, I should have known there would be some turbulence. I was flying in to attend the Collision technology and media conference and had arranged a lot of interviews (such as this one with former shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino) with fascinating people, all carefully arranged to fit around what looked like some really compelling keynote speeches (including this one from superstar VC Chris Sacca).

As ever, logistics were tough — as some of the requested interview times looked like they would overlap — and I had some requests for late changes while I checked my email before taking off. No problem, I thought. I’ll just buy a half hour’s worth of internet access on the inflight GoGo Air WiFi service offered by Delta (and a number of other carriers).

Be patient

It was then that I learned my first important lesson about buying inflight WiFi: be patient. I was so keen on sorting out my scheduling and logistics issues that I managed to somehow spend the princely sum of $8.50 twice in the space of a couple of minutes to buy my inflight WiFi pass.

This was because it took a little while for the purchase screen to refresh and confirm my purchase. In the meantime, I had repurchased the pass, thinking that it hadn’t properly processed the first time.

I discovered my error when I finally got logged onto the GoGo WiFi, looked at my email and saw that I had receipts for two identical purchases with different order numbers. Figuring that this kind of thing happens all the time and that there would be some fast and simple way to correct the problem, I started looking through the GoGo website for help.

The view I didn’t get to enjoy. (Geekwire photo by Geof Wheelwright)

Inflight stress

Meanwhile, our plane was wending its way ever closer to New Orleans, my scheduling emails were unanswered — and, due to the vagaries of satellite WiFi, the internet connection was getting spotty. Over and above all of that, I knew from the eagle-eyed stares of the flight attendants that I would soon be asked to close my laptop and get ready for landing.

The pressure was on. So I did the only thing that seemed to make sense: I contacted the online support chat line, and instantly regretted it. It wasn’t that the person (or bot?) at the other end wasn’t helpful — it was rather than my 30 minutes of purchased airtime were fast dwindling and I was annoyed with myself for wasting it trying to recoup $8.50 of excess inflight WiFi spending.

Luckily, my customer care agent/chatbot Diana was able to confirm that I had indeed made the purchase in error – and she issued me a discount promotional code that I was able to use for higher-speed, one-hour inflight WiFi on the way back from the trip. But it took up so much of my purchased half hour that I was barely able to have time to answer the emails that caused me to buy the WiFi access in the first place.

WiFi apparently a must for millennials

I was reminded of all this when GoGo announced the results of a customer study they called “The Travelers of Tomorrow,” which conveniently revealed that 48 percent of travelers between the ages of 18 and 35 would “choose another airline if Wi-Fi was not available on their preferred flight”.

The result doesn’t surprise me. But, if I had any advice for my new friends at GoGo (and thanks again to Diana, whomever you are), it would be to tune up your payment-handling screen so that customers are not left wondering if their payment has been processed properly (and potentially make the mistake I did). I’m sure most people wouldn’t make the mistake of wasting their in-flight time chasing down a mistaken double purchase, but I’m also sure most customers would be happier if it didn’t happen.

The other advice I would offer is to check whether or not inflight WiFi is available and purchase it before you get on the plane. I was charged $8.50 for half an hour of WiFi, yet GoGo allows you to pre-purchase a one hour pass for $7 or a “full day” pass for $19 from its website.

As for me, I think I’m going to just enjoy the view out of the window next time and not bother with WiFi.