In First Step, Delta to Offer WiFi on Selected Flights

When Delta offers it, WiFi will be $9.95 on flights less than three hours and $12.95 on longer ones.
When Delta offers it, WiFi will be $9.95 on flights less than three hours and $12.95 on longer ones.
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By Alejandro Lazo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 15, 2008

Delta Air Lines plans to begin offering wireless Internet service tomorrow on board half of its shuttle flights between Washington's Reagan National, New York's LaGuardia and Boston's Logan airports.

But don't get too used to it. By the end of March, the planes that currently fly the Washington-New York route will be replaced with planes operated by contract carrier Shuttle America, which don't have Internet access.

By then, however, other Delta flights out of Washington will have WiFi. This week marks the first step of Delta's plan to let passengers on its 330-jet domestic fleet surf the Net by 2009.

The service will allow customers traveling with WiFi-enabled devices such as laptops, smartphones and personal digital assistants access to the Internet, as well as SMS texting and instant messaging services. Voice calls still will not be allowed. The service will be offered for free on local shuttle flights through the end of the year. Next year, it will be $9.95 on flights of three hours or less and $12.95 on longer flights.

WiFi is a source of revenue for Delta as the airline industry struggles in the midst of the economic recession and weaker demand for air travel. Delta announced earlier this month that it will cut its domestic flight schedule by at least 10 percent next year, becoming the first major U.S. airline to announce service reductions.

"It is what people are clamoring for: Internet access everywhere, all the time," said Mike Miller, an Orlando-based aviation consultant. "But unless everybody on board is using it, it is not going to make the difference between profit and loss on an individual flight."

WiFi is a less costly alternative to equipping aircraft with other entertainment systems, Miller said.

The company will begin the service on its MD-88 planes, which the company considers the "workhorse" of its fleet, because they are the only mainline aircraft that do not offer any form of in-flight entertainment, said Chris Babb, Delta's manager of in-flight entertainment and media.

The WiFi service will be offered this week on approximately half of its MD-88 planes that shuttle passengers between Washington and New York, and New York and Boston, as well as on one of its Boeing 757s. Next week, it is to be on all the MD-88s that fly the shuttle route.

But that doesn't mean all the flights between Washington and New York will have the service. Two each day are on Embraer 175 aircraft operated by Shuttle America, without WiFi. By Jan. 5, half the flights will be on the Shuttle America planes, and the transition away from WiFi-equipped MD-88s is to be complete by March 28.

Delta is partnering with Aircell of Itasca, Ill., a privately held in-flight communication company that uses antennas on the bottom of airplanes and cellphone towers on the ground to turn a plane into a WiFi hotspot.

JetBlue launched its own plane with a WiFi network last year. The JetBlue service allows e-mail, messaging and shopping on, but lacks unencumbered Web surfing.

Both Alaska Airlines and Southwest are working with Row 44, a privately held company in Westlake Village, Calif., that provides broadband service, but have not rolled out in-flight WiFi. American Airlines and Virgin America began WiFi service with Aircell earlier this year. American Airlines has the wireless service on routes from New York to Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Virgin America is also rolling out a fleet-wide WiFi network.

Delta plans to have WiFi service in its entire fleet by summer. The airline said that early next year it would begin the process of putting it in domestic flights from Northwest, its merger partner.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company