Delta to offer Wi-Fi on all its U.S. planes, starting this fall

Full fleet to be equipped by mid-2009; airline will use same technology American plans to test

Delta Air Lines Inc. announced today that it will begin rolling out Wi-Fi access on its aircraft this fall, with plans calling for the wireless service to be available on the company's entire domestic fleet of more than 330 planes by next summer.

Delta claimed that it will be first U.S. airline to offer Wi-Fi access on all of its mainline planes. But at least five other carriers — American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Virgin America and Jet Blue — have Wi-Fi tests or projects underway.

American was expected to launch Wi-Fi technology, from the same wireless vendor that Delta is using, on three planes during July, according to some reports. An American spokeswoman wouldn't comment about that last month, saying only that plans for a formal Wi-Fi test onboard 15 jets would be announced in "coming weeks." She said today that American will still be the first airline to activate Aircell LLC's GoGo service on planes, but she didn't say when that will happen.

Aircell's service works via wireless connections between planes and antennas on the ground. Delta said its version of GoGo will cost passengers $9.95 on flights of three hours or less, and $12.95 on flights lasting more than three hours. Flyers with Wi-Fi-ready devices will be able to access the Internet, corporate VPNs and their e-mail directories, as well as instant messaging and SMS texting services.

Voice services won't be supported, in keeping with federal rules prohibiting in-flight phone calls, which have been cited by all of the U.S. airlines planning to offer Wi-Fi capabilities.

Delta CEO Richard Anderson said in a statement that customers had asked for Wi-Fi access on planes and that the service will offer passengers more personal productivity options during flights. Delta initially will offer Wi-Fi on its 133 MD88/90 planes, and then expand the service to its more than 200 Boeing 737, 757 and 767-300 aircraft during the first half of next year.

Although Delta's announcement is the boldest yet by an airline, some analysts have questioned whether in-flight Wi-Fi will prove to be very popular as the U.S. economy sours and corporate travel budgets are tightened. But despite the economic downturn, airline executives think that offering Wi-Fi capabilities will help distinguish their companies from competitors and add some revenue at a time when many carriers are reducing the number of flights they offer.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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