WiFi Nearing Takeoff

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Wireless Internet access is about to move out of coffee shops and airport lounges and into airplanes.

After years of talking about what customers wanted and waiting for new technology, Delta Air Lines said it will begin offering broadband Internet service on domestic flights as early as October. Delta is trying to outmaneuver rival JetBlue, known for outfitting planes with satellite TV, and American Airlines, which is planning to launch Internet service later this year. Other airlines, including Continental, Southwest and Virgin America, are planning tests or have them underway.

Yesterday's announcement makes Delta the first large U.S. airline to commit its main fleet of jets to a technology that lets passengers surf the Net while flying. The service will be available for a $9.95 flat fee on flights of three hours or less, and $12.95 on longer flights.

"If they charge for it, they are going to make millions and millions of dollars," said Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant. "Most of us cannot be away from the Internet or our laptops for very long. We get separation anxiety when we are not on the Internet for a few hours."

Delta said it was adding the service because it was cost-effective and could be deployed more quickly than other options.

Mike Miller, an Orlando-based aviation consultant, said complete in-seat entertainment systems are costly and require a lot of maintenance. And wireless has its own advantages. He said WiFi access will help passengers cope with delays on flights -- giving them something to do.

The in-flight Internet option is unlikely to pacify passengers who are angry about higher ticket prices and charges for sodas and snacks. But analysts say it will add an important revenue source for financially strapped airlines. Ramped up Internet service comes as airlines are not only charging for drinks but also adding baggage fees and fuel surcharges to stem losses from high oil prices.

Passengers with WiFi-enabled laptops, smartphones and PDAs can access the network. The service allows Web access, e-mail and messaging. It won't enable voice calls in the air. Cellphone use is banned on airplanes by two federal agencies. The Federal Aviation Administration fears those wireless signals could interfere with an airplane's avionics and communications equipment. The FCC bans cellphone use on airplanes because it can disrupt mobile service on the ground. Additionally, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) is pushing a bill in Congress to explicitly ban voice calls on flights.

Delta is partnering with Aircell of Itasca, Ill., a privately held in-flight communication company. Aircell's technology uses special antennas on airplanes and cellphone towers on the ground to turn a plane into a WiFi hotspot. Aircell's network, Gogo, is based on bandwidth won from an FCC auction in 2006. American Airlines and Virgin America have also partnered with Aircell to provide broadband service on domestic flights.

Delta, in its announcement, promised to roll out the service on its entire fleet of 330 domestic aircraft by summer 2009, starting with 75 by the end of this year. Delta is starting with MD-88 and MD-90s -- planes that haul travelers up and down the East Coast. Delta, which is merging with Northwest Airlines, plans to install the service on Northwest planes if the Justice Department approves the merger.

For the past year, Aircell has been working closest with American Airlines, which has conducted two "dress rehearsals" using the system on two transcontinental flights in June. American is placing 15 jets in a three- to-six-month trial with Aircell. "We like to take one step at a time, rather than making sweeping pronouncements," said spokeswoman September Wade. "First we want to make it work on these transcontinental flights."

JetBlue launched its first A320 plane with a WiFi network in December. The JetBlue service allows e-mail, messaging and shopping on Amazon.com, but lacks unencumbered Web surfing. Alaska Airlines and Southwest are basing their Internet strategy on satellites rather than cellphone towers. Both are working with Row 44, a privately held company in Westlake Village, Calif., that uses Hughes satellites for broadband service. Neither airline has given specific dates on when they will start the service.

John Guidon, chief executive of Row 44, said satellites have the advantage of a farther range, including Mexico, the Caribbean and extreme reaches of Alaska. He also said his system is less likely to suffer from the congestion that might affect a ground-based system. It also has the ability to be extended across oceans and into Europe.

Aircell executive vice president John Happ said the company was in varying stages of negotiations with U.S. airlines. He said he expected the Aircell technology will be the "standard bearer" in the industry. "We are connected to two of the largest airlines in the world," he said. "That's as a proof point, and we will basically be first to market."

Aircell has installed 92 cell towers across the country to enable coast-to-coast service. Happ said each tower covers a 350-mile span. Over the next 18 months, he said the company will add 400 more towers to accommodate growing demand for the service. Aircraft are equipped with three antennas to receive the digital signal to create the hot spot within the plane's cabin. He said the company was simply borrowing technology that already exists on the ground.

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