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

Wi-Fi service is offered on more than one-third of the nation's passenger planes, so it's no longer rare to see travelers connecting to the Internet in midflight.

Despite such growth, some users still consider in-flight Wi-Fi to be expensive, especially on longer flights; it can cost $13 for more than three hours of service. Some travelers also say they get confused when they try to figure out which planes actually have Wi-Fi service, according to complaints on various blogs. And on top of that, travelers need to know what kind of DC power adapter to bring on a plane, since Wi-Fi quickly saps laptop batteries.

All but a few planes in the U.S. that offer Wi-Fi use a service called Gogo from Itasca, Ill.-based Aircell. Gogo service is used by eight carriers and is available on 968 aircraft, or more than one-third of the estimated 2,800 aircraft that are flown by U.S. airlines, according to Aircell's Web site.

Southwest Airlines now has six planes that use a Wi-Fi service from Row 44 Inc.; that's up from just one plane in May. However, the airline plans to add Wi-Fi to its entire fleet by early 2012, a spokesman said.

The services provided by both Aircell and Row 44 offer a similar in-flight experience, but Row 44 gets its signals from satellites while Aircell relies on ground radio tower connections.

Two years ago, Row 44 seemed to be running neck-and-neck with Aircell in the race to provide U.S. fleets with Wi-Fi capability. But it fell behind in its effort to equip Southwest planes while waiting for federal government approval to work with an additional antenna vendor, according to Robbie Hyman, a spokesman for Westlake Village, Calif.-based Row 44.

"We've cleared that hurdle, though, and are resuming the schedule to outfit Southwest planes," Hyman said.

Southwest is adding Wi-Fi to about 15 aircraft per month, with its full fleet of 540 planes expected to get the wireless service by early 2012, Hyman said. Information about Southwests's Wi-Fi plans is also posted on a Southwest blog from earlier this year.

Meanwhile, it's uncertain whether many more U.S.-based carriers will choose to offer Row 44 service. Hyman conceded that Aircell "has gotten a jump on much of the U.S. market," but he claimed that because Aircell uses ground-based towers, it is only capable of providing service in the U.S., whereas Row 44's system "goes all over the world."

Row 44's second customer was Norwegian Air Shuttle and its third was South Africa's Mango Airlines. "We have the entire world of commercial airlines as our market [while] Aircell is limited to the continental U.S.," Hyman said.

Still, Row 44 lost Alaska Airlines to Aircell in the past year. An Alaska Airlines spokeswoman explained that using Aircell enabled the carrier to deploy Wi-Fi more quickly than it could have with Row 44. She also noted that Aircell had a "proven track record" with other carriers.

Airline Wi-Fi

Airline Wi-Fi status Laptop Price

Air Canada Limited A319 aircraft $9.95 (US)

AirTran All flights $4.95 - $12.95

Alaska Airlines Select flights; full fleet by end of year free through 7/31

American Airlines "All 767-200s, select MD80s, soon on 737s"

Continental Airlines Tested

Delta Air Lines More than 500 aircraft $4.95 - $12.95

JetBlue BetaBlue test of limited access free

Southwest 6 planes testing prices of $2-$12 per segment

United Airlines 13 planes on transcontinental flights

US Airways Select A321s $4.95 - $12.95

Virgin America All flights $4.95 - $12.95

Source: Computerworld

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.

Aircell's Steenstrup wouldn't discuss customer satisfaction with the current Gogo pricing or how many more planes will add the service in the next year. However, he said Aircell is "thrilled with our usage rates" and noted that 61% of Gogo users have used the service again within three months.

Business travelers might find wireless service on long flights to be so valuable -- for, say, answering e-mails or connecting to a company VPN -- that they're willing to pay Gogo's prices, Gold noted. "Business types with a pressing need will use it, but then they can expense it," he said. For casual users, on the other hand, "I think... the Wi-Fi price is still a bit too high," he said.

Gold said that Aircell could be setting its prices so high in an attempt to limit the number of passengers who use its service on a single plane, since network performance declines as the number of people who log on increases. "If you had 50 users on a plane, I'll bet it would be pretty slow," he said. "If they lower the price, you'll get lots more users, but that would increase the loading problem."

In coming years, Gold predicted, airlines might make Wi-Fi a free service in first class but charge passengers for it in the economy cabin, just as they do now with food and beverage service.

Wi-Fi has grown more common on U.S. flights even though the airlines have restricted passengers from using voice over Wi-Fi (or video chat) systems. Some airlines have said they don't believe passengers want to hear their fellow travelers engage in phone conversations during flights, although airlines in some other countries allow video chat.

Aircell has "multiple protocols and practices in place" to prevent the use of voice-over-IP systems, said a company spokeswoman. However, she acknowledged that it's "extremely difficult to stop every instance of VoIP." A recent New York Times article described a Skype call that took place on a Virgin America flight, and this reporter conducted a short video chat on a Virgin flight last December.

Even so, "Aircell is monitoring and working constantly to enforce these [airlines' no-VoIP] policies," the spokeswoman said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at Twitter @matthamblen, or subscribe to Hamblen RSSMatt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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