Inside Gogo Inflight Internet’s “All Access” Day

I was invited out to visit Gogo, the inflight internet provider, for their ‘all access’ event the day before their investor day.

For full disclosure, I opted to pay for my own flight and my own hotel stay but I did receive some swag (most of which I didn’t keep, and the balance of which I’m giving away) and did receive lunch and dinner as part of the day that went from 7:45am until about 10pm.

There were about 35 people present, including Randy Petersen, JohnnyJet, and Wandering Aramean.

Now, I’m not much of a techie. 20 years ago I fancied myself a bit of one, but things have just passed me by in the intervening decades. So I’m not able to independently verify claims about speed, or discourse at length on the pluses and minuses of the different technological approaches to providing connectivity inside a metal tube at 35,000 feet while hurtling through the sky at over 500 miles per hour.

But I am able to offer a layman’s photographic look inside one of the coolest (for me, anyway) innovations in air travel I’ve experienced. Well, just behind the first class suite anyway…

And I’m not really sure I understand what gogo hoped to gain in having people visit. It’s not like I can share with my audience that “gogo is better than their competitors” so you should choose gogo internet over someone else the next time you’re onboard. Each internet-equipped aircraft is generally equipped by only one service provider.

It would be exceedingly costly to outfit a plane with more than one company’s system. And it would be complex for an airline to have more than one company providing maintenance on the internet systems of the aircraft.

So while airlines face a competitive market for internet providers, consumers have access to the system chosen by the airline they’re flying.

Although we do know that consumers choose airlines based on connectivity. When I spoke at the Phoenix Aviation Symposium a couple of years ago, Doug Parker commented at the event that US Airways had opted to move forward with inflight internet across their flight even though they knew they would never recoup their investment in new revenue from internet use. Instead, they realized they were losing ticket sales by not having internet at the time (other than on their A321 aircraft).

Gogo’s corporate headquarters is out in Itasca, Illinois – not far from O’Hare – though they’ll be moving downtown next year. (They’ll still maintain facilities by the airport for obvious reasons, just as they position parts around the country to be able to quickly service their air-to-ground internet towers as well as maintain aircraft.)

All over the place there’s simulations of their service, aircraft mockups for usability analysis, and seats. Just sort of a cool place to visit.

Lots of branded swag, too.

They see themselves as offering end-to-end communications solutions for airlines, not just providing internet for passengers (of commercial and business aircraft).

    (Click to enlarge)

And as the chart above illustrates, they’re pursuing essentially all of the different technological strategies for inflight connectivity to varying degrees (air to ground, various bands, satellite).

They explain the reason why as:

  • Lots of different planes fly different missions.. ATG is useless over ocean, but satellite is useless for a regional jet over land where it doesn’t make sense to install an antenna.
  • Technology changes, they need a pipeline for future efficient solutions. A theme throughout the day was continued capital investments which have traded off with current profitability.
  • They’re still early in the industry, so they hedge bets on what will prevail as best technology (they “don’t want to Betamax” themselves).

Gogo serves 60,000 to 70,000 internet sessions per day.

My first visit was to the lab where they have specially built the room to keep to keep out all other internet signals. They run the same server in the room for internet that they have onboard an aircraft, for testing purposes. (There’s also a usability lab in the form of a mock cabin interior.)

And that’s were we got the rundown on customer service.

Here’s their real-time monitoring of internet social media feedback.

    (Click to enlarge)

And current customer complaints they were working on.

    (Click to enlarge)

Here’s inflight chats with Gogo tech support.

    (Click to enlarge)

They take support queries 24 hours a day (apparently they credit Henry Harteveldt with teaching them the need for this) through phone, email, chat, and social media. And they’re introducing support in Japanese, French, and Spanish this year. There are 75 full time equivalent staff taking 1500 support queries per day.

The most common issues are payment-related (e.g. suspend my monthly service) and login related. They’ve seen a declining number of support issues related to logging into the system as people have become more familiar with using it, and a declining number of issues relating to connectivity as their system reliability and speed has improved over the past couple of years.

On the whole I do notice that the service is better overall, but it’s not the kind of service I get on the ground. I don’t expect that it should be of course .. but do frequently wish it was faster.

We visited their monitoring center, where they oversee network performance and the performance of individual aircraft. They know what flights have zero or below normal uptake, and so aircraft may need maintenance. They monitor how long each flight had connectivity — whether there were any gaps when the plane was over 10,000 feet, how long the handoff may have taken switching satellites. And they know the real-time status of the various sources of internet (satellite, air-to-ground).

Weather can effect satellite internet the most, much more so than ground-based internet, but they’re very concerned about and monitor weather constantly either way. If weather takes down one of their ground-based towers they can adjust coverage from surrounding sites to compensate.

We visited the Satcom lab, which is like any other IT server room I’ve ever been in.. only more so.

I want this antenna at home:

Here’s what goes underneath the dome on the top of a plane with satellite connectivity.

I told you I did get lunch as part of the day:

After lunch I visited their FAA-approved warehouse facility.

And.. it’s a warehouse, but still interesting to see the installation kits, and the dome for the top of an aircraft getting satellite internet.

During the fourth quarter Gogo will be deploying a new “Gogo Vision” first with Alaska Airlines, an inflight movie solution that allows serving entertainment content wireless from the server on the aircraft without any internet connectivity. This will serve Alaska well overwater on their Hawaii flights, where air-to-ground internet isn’t an option.

They have a digital rights management (“DRM”) server on the plane, and take credit card information, apparently they have a solution to batch credit card payments in such a way that they can connect to validate credit cards even over water but I’m not clear on how they plan to do that.

A fascinating day to learn more about their operation, and I appreciated the opportunity very much — though still not sure the value proposition for them in doing this. And for this non-techie I was most interested in getting a sense for the roadmap towards faster internet.

Although they keep pushing forward on speed and reliability, each installation is an expensive proposition so existing aircraft installs don’t get upgraded to newer generation systems in the near-term.

Additional disclosure: Usually disclosures involve what the writer gets from a company they’re writing about. In this case it seemed worth mentioning that Gogo is a service I value enough that I pay ~ $40 a month for their unlimited use plan on American Airlines and US Airways.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It’s good enough to buy for every flight but the other majors need to get competitive with Southwest who allow you to stay connected from when you get onboard to when you exit the plane. Cutting off at 10,000 feet those with phones and tablets is irritating and will push customers to other majors when a non-Greyhound one allows door to door internet service.

  2. Gogo Vision already exists; it is deployed on AA, DL and AS today.

    The change coming in Q4 is that they will have upgraded the on-board server in a few ways. Among them is that it will be able to process payments locally rather than requiring internet connectivity. This will allow passengers to buy movies/shows even when outside of the coverage area. That’s the product/platform AS expects to introduce in Q4.

  3. That is a nightmare server area. Would never fly at places like Yahoo, Google, etc data centers.

  4. ATL and ORD weather makes sense, but why do they care about SFO? United’s dark fleet should be irrelevant to them…

  5. Carol K – it isn’t a server area, as Gary mentioned, it is a lab.

    Justin, Virgin America?

  6. Interesting… but irrelevant. All that matters is the experience people have.

    I’m sure AT&T has some similar fancy war room and labs they could have shown you, but that wouldn’t change the fact that the internet in my hotel (Hilton San Jose) was out for most of my stay and I’m unhappy about that and will base my hotel stays going forward on that experience.

    Same with Gogo. If it works when I try it, I’ll try it again. That’s all there is.

  7. At least you got some Lou Malnati’s pizza. Considered the very best by many around here.

  8. @Glenn

    Why bother to read anything on the internet then if the only thing that matters is when you try it? Why read newspapers, magazines, or anything else? Or, simply put: Why even bother to read stuff here? What a generally useless comment.

    It was actually a pretty cool look behind the scenes – especially some of the screenshots of what stats they monitor were interesting.

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