Wi-Fi in-flight comes to some American routes

Wireless service to cost $12.95; airline to evaluate whether to expand effort in three to six months

American Airlines launched in-flight Wi-Fi service on three long-haul routes in the U.S. today, and it will decide in three to six months whether to expand the service to other routes.

While there has been a recent surge in interest among airlines in providing in-flight Wi-Fi to passengers, this is the biggest step any carrier has taken toward that goal. Earlier this month, Delta Air Lines said it will begin rolling out Wi-Fi service on all its planes in the fall, while Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Virgin America and Jet Blue have Wi-Fi tests or limited projects underway.

American has created Wi-Fi networks aboard 15 Boeing 767-200 planes serving three routes with nonstop flights between New York and San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, and New York and Miami, the airline said.

Today's launch was originally intended to take place last month, but "tweaks" had to be made to the system, especially to simplify the setup process for users, an American spokeswoman said today.

The Wi-Fi service, called Gogo, is provided by Aircell LLC, which has offices in Broomfield, Colo. and Itasca, Ill. Gogo connects each plane's Wi-Fi hot spot to the ground over a 3-Mhz signal that connects to Aircell's network of 92 cell towers throughout the continental U.S.

Users will be able to launch Internet browsers on Wi-Fi-enabled laptops or other devices once planes reach 10,000 feet. At that point, they will be directed to a Gogo portal to sign up for service with a credit card. The service will cost $12.95 on each flight over three hours.

While users will have the ability to surf the Web, check e-mail, hold instant-messaging conversations and access corporate VPNs, they will not be allowed to use voice over IP or any voice cell service while in the air. All of the airlines setting up Wi-Fi service have cited federal rules forbidding in-flight phone calls as one of the reasons why they are not offering voice service, but they have also noted that other passengers would get annoyed if too many of their fellow travelers talked on cell phones.

American issued a statement saying Wi-Fi speeds in-flight will be comparable to mobile broadband speeds on the ground. And it added that performance levels for video downloads during beta tests were similar to those for downloads via ground-based mobile broadband service.

There were two recent dress rehearsals to fine-tune the technology, one aboard a flight in June and another last week, said the American spokeswoman, September Wade. During the trial runs, Aircell and American found that the number of steps needed to set up an account had to be decreased. "We wanted it simple for anybody, technical or not," she said.

Some financial analysts who cover the airline industry are waiting to see how popular Wi-Fi will be, especially at a cost of $12.95 per use. Wade said that American will decide how to proceed after evaluating the success of the trial launched today. The airlines will weigh both the business value and the effectiveness of the Wi-Fi network, she said.

With airlines facing financial difficulties due to increases in fuel costs and reductions in business travel, there will be more pressure to show that an added feature such as Wi-Fi pays for itself, Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney noted in July. A Wi-Fi service called Connexion by Boeing, which was installed on Lufthansa and ANA planes, was discontinued because it wasn't widely used and had been available mainly on night flights, Dulaney said.

"Customer response to Gogo will play a vital role" in whether American expands the service to other planes, Wade said. Some analysts also are watching how customers' opinions of Wi-Fi service are affected by the fact that using Wi-Fi drains their devices' batteries. But American said it has prepared for that problem by offering power outlets for every seat in business class and first class, and at least one outlet for every two rows in coach.

Officials wouldn't comment on the cost of Wi-Fi installation per airplane, although each Aircell-equipped aircraft must have three antennas installed on the outside, two on the belly and one on top. Aircell arranged for the service through an exclusive Federal Communication Commission 800 MHz license, and Aircell officials have said that they plan to expand the number of cellular towers the company operates from 92 to more than 500 in coming months.

Aircell is also working on the Wi-Fi projects underway at Virgin America and Delta. Virgin America expects to have 20 planes equipped with wireless service by the start of 2009.

Row 44 Inc. in Westlake, Calif., is providing satellite-based connections for Wi-Fi service aboard Southwest and Alaska Airlines planes. Those two carriers are expected to begin testing Wi-Fi on several of their planes this month.

JetBlue has already launched Wi-Fi service on one plane using a platform called Kiteline.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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