Wi-Fi available on 1 in 3 U.S. planes

No longer rare, the service is gradually being added on more passenger jets, but VoIP a no-no

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Aircell's Web site offers an unlimited subscription for Gogo service that costs $20 for the first month and $35 a month thereafter.

Aircell's site lists eight airlines that offer Gogo Wi-Fi service and says that a ninth, Frontier Airlines, will be offering it soon. Delta Air Lines has the most planes with Wi-Fi service -- nearly all of its 500 aircraft -- while American Airlines offers Wi-Fi on about half its fleet, which includes 165 MD-80s and 15 767-200s.

Some smaller airlines have Wi-Fi on their entire fleets, including AirTran Airways with 136 planes and Virgin America with 28. Both of those airlines were already offering Wi-Fi service about a year ago.

United Airlines has Wi-Fi on 13 planes that make some coast-to-coast trips, and US Airways offers Wi-Fi on its A321 aircraft on longer flights. Alaska Airlines is expecting to activate Wi-Fi on its entire fleet of 116 planes this year.

Whether a specific flight has Wi-Fi is hard to determine, users say, since not all carriers offer information about Wi-Fi on their online bookings. The interiors of Gogo-equipped planes feature Wi-Fi decals, and flight attendants on Wi-Fi-equipped planes will mention the service once an aircraft has risen above 10,000 feet, according to Aircell officials.

Some older aircraft still use round-shaped DC power sockets, requiring passengers to use adapters that can cost up to $60 to connect to a three-pronged plug on a laptop cord. However, the power question is "becoming less of an issue as the battery life of Wi-Fi-enabled devices continues to improve," said Niels Steenstrup, an Aircell vice president.

Future Wi-Fi rollouts could be mainly aboard newer aircraft that have three-pronged outlets, but each airline's plans and equipment are different. For example, Virgin America has equipped its newer jets with three-pronged sockets, but U.S. Airways A321s have the round sockets that require adapters.

"There is a growing trend to include power outlets on newer planes, but I don't think many older planes are being upgraded, so the percentage of planes with power at the seats is still limited," said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J.Gold Associates LLC.

With nearly 1,000 Wi-Fi-ready planes in the U.S., it's clear that in-flight Wi-Fi is here to stay. Less clear is how the service will be priced in a year, or how many more planes will support Wi-Fi. The impact that the economy has had on airlines is certainly a factor, and some analysts have said that it will take at least another two years for Wi-Fi to blanket the nation's passenger fleet.

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