Wi-Fi on Delta Airlines

I just had my first experience with Internet access on an airplane. It didn't go well.

Typical of a computer endeavor, the documentation was non-existent.

There was no notice ahead of time that the service was available. This despite having done the full on-line thing. I reserved the tickets at Delta's website, checked in on-line, changed my seat assignment on-line and got an email notification with the flight details the day before. Nothing mentioned that Wi-Fi Internet access was going to be available on the flight. There was nothing about it at the airport either. And when the availability of the service was mentioned on the plane, nothing was said about the cost.

When I checked the available wireless networks at 9,000 feet there were more than one (see below).

wifi_on_delta_ChoseANetwork.jpg

As luck would have it, I first ran across the "Free Public Wi-Fi" network scam at an airport terminal last year, so I know not to connect to this ad-hoc network* (Windows XP calls it a computer to computer network), but I'm sure passengers have tried and ended up frustrated (if they're lucky). I wonder how flight attendands feel about doing tech support?

On the other hand, I never heard of gogoinflight either.

Before connecting to any public wireless network there are two things you should do, turn off file and printer sharing and double check that your firewall is on. If you use the Windows XP firewall, then you're safer turning off all exceptions. Having done all this, I connect to the gogoinflight network.

When connected to a public wireless network there is one other thing you should do: assume that someone is standing behind you watching everything you do. If there is anything you wouldn't want a total stranger to see, then don't send it (or receive it) over a pubic unsecure Wi-Fi network. Secure web pages are probably safe, but they are not as secure as most people think. If this becomes a hassle, then you need a VPN.

I connected to the network just fine and the network status information is shown below. But then I hit a snag.

wifi_on_delta3_NetworkStatus.png

The first website that I tried to visit failed with the message below.

wifi_on_delta4_AddressNotFound.gif

I wasn't trying to access gogoinflite.com, so this was puzzling at first.

To narrow down the problem, I tried to access the default gateway by IP address. This normally indicates if the problem is gettng to the router or getting out from the router to the outside world.

My http://172.19.131.2 request also failed as did a ping of the router by IP address. A Windows XP Repair of the connection didn't help. Neither did disconnecting from the network and re-connecting.

When all else fails, I fall back on an "arp -a" command. If my computer was able to contact the router at all, it will show the Mac address of the router. The result, shown below, confirms that, at the lowest level, my computer was able to communicate to the router at 72.19.131.2.

C:\Documents and Settings\michael>arp -a

Interface: 172.19.131.170 --- 0x30007

Internet Address Physical Address Type

172.19.131.2 00-e0-4b-1d-6d-49 dynamic

So the problem was with TCP/IP rather than Ethernet or Wi-Fi (the signal strength was a full 5 bars). What was wrong? DNS.

DNS WAS THE PROBLEM

I'm a big fan of OpenDNS and had hard coded their DNS servers for the Wi-Fi connection on my laptop. Changing this back to the more customary option of being assigned DNS servers by the router, fixed things.

What happened when accessing the router by IP address was that the initial connection worked fine, but then the re-direct (shown below) failed.

wifi_on_delta12_ReDirecting.png

OpenDNS deals with the real Internet, but apparently airborne.gogoinflite.com is on the plane, not on the real Internet. These problems could have been easily avoided, if only there was some documentation that said you had to use their DNS servers.

The failed ping of the router was probably done on purpose by whoever configured the router. Not a choice I would have made.

Now that I could access the free part of the system, I learned the cost. Gogo wanted $10 to access the Internet for the duration of the flite.

At this point, I wanted no part of it. Who knows how fast the connection is, how well streaming audio plays (I'd love to listen to my favorite radio stations) or whether there are any bandwidth limits.

wifi_on_delta8_GoGo.jpg

This was all so unnecessary. Had I known of the service ahead of time, I would have signed up, for the experience if nothing else. The price seems fair enough, heck I paid $15 to check a suitcase.

Without paying, you still get access to Delta.com so I could see what gate the flight arrived at and our estimated arrival time. They also offered a handful of stories from the Wall Street Journal, I think if you pay for the service you get full access to wsj.com, but don't quote me on that.

Back on the ground I tried to research in-flight Internet access at Delta.com. A search on "Wi-Fi" turns up nothing and the In-flight services page also says nothing about Wi-Fi.

It's a start, I suppose.

Update: March 28, 2009. See part 2 for more on Delta, Aircell and Wi-Fi

*The fact that "Free Public Wi-Fi" is an ad-hoc network is brutally obvious in Windows XP, the icons for the two different types of networks (the other is infrastructure) are large and reasonably self-explanatory. Not so in Windows 7 where the icons are tiny and not at all intuitive (at least to me).

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