SEAT 2B | By Joe Brancatelli

No WiFi in the Sky

What's keeping in-flight internet from becoming a reality?
What's keeping in-flight internet from becoming a reality? (Justin Sullivan - Getty Images)
By Joe Brancatelli Business Travel
Tuesday, August 19, 2008; 10:25 AM

After years of deals, tests, business bungles, and hype, in-flight internet access has yet to take off.

The long and winding road to in-flight internet service led to a dead end at London's Heathrow Airport back in February 2003. About a month after Lufthansa first tested Boeing's satellite-based internet technology, Boeing herded a gaggle of media types onto a similarly equipped British Airways transatlantic flight.

Stan Deal, charged with selling Boeing's Connexion internet service to airlines and travelers, was ecstatic. The test went swimmingly, and everyone on board had surfed the Web without a glitch. When we landed, however, there was a shortage of Boeing-supplied limos. Deal made a beeline for the taxis, but I suggested the Heathrow Express train, which would get us into London in just 20 minutes. Deal would have none of it.

As we crawled through the morning traffic for two hours, I hammered Deal over pricing. Boeing's plan to charge passengers $30 a flight for internet access was insane, especially in the introductory phase. "We pay eight grand to fly business class from New York, and B.A. will pour me as much $50-a-bottle Champagne as I can drink. But if I want to use the internet, I gotta pay $30?" I said, with what I thought was undeniable logic. "You can't nickel-and-dime high-yield customers like that."

Deal would have none of that, either. Boeing launched Connexion in the summer of 2004 at $30 a pop. Lufthansa and a dozen other international carriers -- although not B.A. or any U.S. airline -- installed it. But passengers refused to pay. Connexion died, largely unmourned, on December 31, 2006. Airlines that shelled out about $500,000 a plane were left in the lurch, and Boeing lost an estimated $300 million. The only bright spot: When Boeing gave away internet access in Connexion's final months, passenger usage skyrocketed.

Almost two years later, we're still essentially nowhere with in-flight access, which is shaping up as the final, possibly unconquerable, internet frontier.

Lufthansa, Connexion's biggest booster, continues to search for a replacement system for its overseas flights. But as Connexion proved, satellite internet is costly to install and expensive to operate, and access speeds are pokey. A European system called OnAir, sponsored by Boeing's largest competitor, Airbus, also seems stalled. And Aircell, a much-publicized service that promises to offer domestic in-flight internet using a cheap, fast air-to-ground system, is months behind schedule.

You've surely heard of Aircell. With great fanfare and compliant mainstream media coverage, it has announced deals to wire aircraft operated by American, Delta, and Virgin America airlines. It has a brand name for its internet service, Gogo Inflight. It has a pricing structure: $9.95 to $12.95 a flight.

Aircell has everything but service. Earlier this year, American Airlines wired 15 of its Boeing 767s, but the internet access has yet to be turned on for commercial use. It's barely been tested. According to American, Gogo was used in June on two "dress rehearsal" flights and tested on two additional flights last week. Yet the airline won't publicly commit to a date when it will finally begin what it describes as a "three- to six-month trial to customers."

"This thing should have been working months ago," one frustrated American executive told me last week. "Obviously, there's something wrong."

Why the delay? Aircell isn't talking and refused repeated requests for an interview. Instead, its public-relations agency referred me back to its press releases, most of which said Aircell would be operating by now.

Aircell's deals with Delta and Virgin America are also less than meets the eye.

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