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Wi-Fi on planes is growing, if you can find the right flights

It could be two years before major carriers roll out entire fleets offering wireless service

August 20, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - U.S. airlines are adding Wi-Fi to more of their planes, but it could still be years before the biggest carriers have their fleets fully equipped with the wireless technology and passengers can expect to have access to e-mail and the Internet when they board any flight.

Only one major airline, AirTran Airways, has equipped its entire fleet with Wi-Fi using a service called Gogo, which relies on ground-to-air gear over the 3 MHz spectrum from Aircell. AirTran has a fleet of 136 aircraft, and Aircell said Gogo is available on more than 500 aircraft on six U.S. airlines, including all 28 planes flown by Virgin America.

But AirTran's fleet is smaller than those of the biggest carriers, such as American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Air Lines. This week, American said it had nearly 115 planes equipped with Gogo. It also expects to have 300 more planes in its 500-plane fleet equipped with Gogo within two years.

In late July, Delta said it had 219 aircraft with Gogo and expected 330 of its planes to be have the technology installed this year. United has said it will only have Wi-Fi on 13 long-distance flights in the second half of 2009. US Airways has yet to roll out Gogo on its planes, saying it plans to do so early next year.

Some airlines, including Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines, are relying on Wi-Fi technology that connects planes to satellites from a vendor known as Row 44 Inc. Westlake Village, Calif.-based Row 44 is also working with two other unnamed airlines, the company's president, Gregg Fialcowitz, said in an interview. (Row 44 got its unusual name from the back row of a crowded plane where one of the founders sat when he was a young traveler taking a backpacking trek.)

Both Southwest, which has more than 500 planes, and Alaska Airlines will move forward quickly to roll out service to their entire fleets, Fialcowitz predicted, noting that the two airlines recently concluded successful tests on several planes. Row 44 received authorization from the Federal Communications Commission for the Wi-Fi service in early August.

"The airlines want to roll out Wi-Fi to their entire fleets as soon as possible because they don't want their passengers to fly today with Wi-Fi and then have the experience tomorrow of not having it and being disappointed," he said. "The airlines want it ubiquitous throughout the fleet."

And ubiquity will matter tremendously, said Robert McAdoo, a financial analyst at Avondale Partners LLC who conducts research on nearly 20 airlines and has used Wi-Fi on planes. "Wi-Fi is absolutely here to stay on U.S. airlines, and it's absolutely an advantage to airlines to get their fleets totally equipped," he said.



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