Is Inflight Wireless Internet Better Than a First Class Upgrade?

Earlier today tweeted something that’s probably pretty controversial to frequent flyers:

@AmericanAir upgrade didn’t clear — but I’d rather have my exit row aisle with @Gogo internet than a first class seat without connectivity!

Most of the time of course this is a false dilemma. As an Executive Platinum on American, I generally clear my upgrades. There are three distinct differences between United’s 100,000 mile flyers and American’s in this regard:

  • United’s 100,000 mile flyers are not top tier elites, United’s Global Services is the top elite level and that’s not earned from straight miles flown. At American, flying 100,000 miles puts you in the top elite tier.
  • United privileges full fare elite passengers over higher-level elites on mid-tier fares. A full fare silver trumps a middle-fare 1K. American is status (with full fare tickets getting priority within a given status level) then time of request.
  • Especially relevant in my home market of Washington DC, United treats government YCA fares as full fare. So any government Premier Silver flying on a YCA fare trumps a 1K on a mid-level fare. American doesn’t upgrade treat government fares as full fare.

But having just flown a couple of mid-cons, one up front on a 757 (my first domestic American segment in quite awhile that wasn’t equipped with internet), and then in back on a 737 (I was number three on the list with 2 remaining first class seats), I think I’ve decided I like flying in back with internet better than flying up front without — when I am in an exit row aisle seat, at least.

This applies to mid-con flights only, probably nothing longer than a Westbound West Coast – Chicago flight.

But it was still pretty telling for me. Now, American’s aisle seats in coach on the 737 are narrower than the middle or window seats, but I still prefer the aisle. And the flight attendants uniformly recognize my status, thank me, and per American’s policy comp a buy on board snack and a drink.

The key, though, is the internet access. I never realized what I was missing before I started flying American regularly this year. I never thought I especially wanted internet onboard. Airplane time was solitude, it was reading time, I’m simply not that often undisturbed where I can plough through a book.

But once I started flying with internet, I can genuinely say that Gogo Inflight Internet changed my life.

I used to fly midweek during the business day, and I’d have a nasty backup of emails when I landed. The inflight experience might have been solitude, but getting off the plane was a frenzy. I was perpetually behind while on the road.

Now I dispose of every question, query, request for help (and Nigerian dictator’s wife looking for my help to abscond with state funds) while I’m onboard. My voicemail forwards to my email box, so I can listen to my messages and send off an email reply rather than going through a series of phone calls when I hit the ground.

And whatever I’m working on, I used to be half productive in the air because I’d still need to fill in the blanks later with files off a work share drive or verify some piece of information via the internet. Now I can put things to bed.

I’ll still prefer to be upgraded on a flight that has internet, and I certainly don’t want to give up my upgrade on a flight that doesn’t. I don’t ever want to sit in back. I’m not crazy!

…Or am I? Would you take an upgrade on a plane without internet over an exit row aisle and connectivity?

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. AA does upgrade Government fares domestically. Having been an EXP, PLT and GLD, I have consistently cleared upgrades. DWUs internationally however, don’t work..

  2. Do you mean AA does not upgrade any govt fares at all? Per the AA T&Cs, they don’t automatically upgrade govt Y/B fares and govt fares are not upgradeable with E-VIPs. But what about complimentary upgrades and 500 miles upgrades?

  3. @Mike @Carl – I mistyped and have clarified. AA does not treat government fares AS FULL FARE for the purpose of upgrades. in addition to not being about to use an eVIP on a government fare, Platinum and Golds do not get complimentary upgrades on government fares. And government fares don’t get priority within a given status level. I did not mean to say that American will not do 500-mile upgrades on government fares at all.

  4. That is exactly why this 1K MM has made just two flights on UA this year: I switched to DL last fall and haven’t looked back*.

    I even get gogo access on RJ’s now.

    * (except when I’ve been gifting UA SWUs to colleagues, while I have to buy M fares to use them. Don’t whine about the W requirement until you look at the other side of the fence.)

  5. The question translates to “would you take an airline you do not have status on, but which has in flight internet, instead of an airline you do have status on but which does not have in flight internet”

    I have found myself more and more taking a flight other than United because I can get in flight internet and I even pay more sometimes.

    United in particular needs to actually do SOMETHING about in flight internet soon.

  6. United really dropped the ball on not getting on board with Gogo earlier. It makes a huge difference. The question I have, is how do you get your voicemail to forward to your email? I could really benefit from that.

  7. Oh my, definitely would take the internets over domestic and intra-Europe upfront without a thought.

  8. Is this really true?:

    “United privileges full fare elite passengers over higher-level elites on mid-tier fares. A full fare silver trumps a middle-fare 1K.”

    Maybe that explains why I have been moving further and further down the upgrade list as of late (even though I did get upgraded this morning).

    Hasn’t United already rolled out in flight wifi on it’s transcons? I heard a rumor it should be on most flights by the end of the year. Anyone know if this is true?

  9. I think that I still prefer the seat up front. Depending on the size of your laptop, it can be a little cramped in the back trying to type especially if the person in front of you has reclined. I also agree that a flight is basically the only time that I get to read so I really look forward to it. To me, if the upgrade clears to first and I *want* to work, it’s no big deal to spring for the cost of the internet. Why not have your cake and eat it too?

    Having said that, though, it might be nice if an airline re-jiggered their upgrade list like this so you at least get some added value when you don’t clear i.e.

    1) First class
    2) Premium Economy/Exit Row seat with free wi-fi voucher
    3) wi-fi voucher and complimentary snack

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