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Airlines to Embrace Wireless Internet in the Air.
More airlines looking at bringing amenity to their planes' for a fee.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/08/08

Millions of airline passengers soon will be able to log onto the Internet while in the air, as Delta Air Lines and other carriers launch a new service from Aircell, a small company that started as a maker of telephone systems for small general aviation planes and is now launching a Wi-Fi system for airlines.

Aircell, which is based in Itasca, Ill., and has about 225 employees, won a key piece of spectrum in a 2006 federal auction that allows it to offer in-flight Wi-Fi.

Revenue-hungry airlines see Wi-Fi as a valuable and lucrative amenity to sell to travelers, especially business travelers who want to stay connected at all times. Atlanta-based Delta announced this week it plans to offer the service on domestic flights. It will outfit its first airplane with the Aircell Wi-Fi system as early as next month and put the system on its entire mainline domestic fleet by next summer. Delta plans to charge $9.95 on flights three hours or shorter and $12.95 on longer flights.

AirTran, which is based in Orlando and has its hub in Atlanta, also is studying in-flight Wi-Fi. "We have talked to several vendors for on-board Wi-Fi," said AirTran spokesman Tad Hutcheson. "I think it's something you'll see in the future on many different airlines."

Bringing in-flight Wi-Fi to the masses isn't easy, though, and Aircell's service still is being proved. It had originally expected to launch commercial service in 2007, but its start-up process has extended into this year. Meanwhile, high fuel costs that have prompted airlines to cut back on capital expenditures have made many wary of investing in such amenities.

So far, only American Airlines has Aircell's system on board, with 15 planes being tested since its first installation was completed in January. The system is being fine-tuned before American launches a trial, according to American spokeswoman September Wade.

Because Aircell depends on a network of 92 ground towers to make an airplane a flying "hot spot," its service is limited to the United States. The company plans to add hundreds more ground towers and plans to expand the service to cover North America and the Caribbean in the next year. Aircell's in-flight Internet effort isn't the first. Years ago, Boeing offered a satellite-based broadband service called Connexion by Boeing, which was more expensive. It was discontinued in 2006.

And now, Aircell has competitors as well.

JetBlue is testing a more limited form of in-flight connectivity that's free to passengers on one plane through its subsidiary LiveTV, which has a smaller piece of spectrum that limits passengers primarily to e-mail and messaging. JetBlue hasn't determined whether it will roll out the service on its entire fleet.

Satellite-based services being pitched by companies including Row 44 and Panasonic would offer broadband with coverage for international flights, but the equipment can be costlier and heavier and take longer to install problems for airlines trying to control costs and save every drop of fuel possible.

In-flight Wi-Fi is almost as fast as on the ground, Forrester Research analyst Henry Harteveldt said. It's fine for Web surfing but might be slower when downloading things like movies or music, he said. And because it's a wireless service, "there's going to be a little bit of variability," Aircell chief executive Jack Blumenstein acknowledged. Drops in service are minimal, he said.

Blumenstein said he expects 2,000 airliners to be flying with Wi-Fi by the end of next year. According to Harteveldt's research, 45 percent of passengers said they would pay $10 to go online on flights of four hours or more. If there is widespread use of the Web on airline flights, it could spark some new issues in air etiquette.

Aircell will block Internet phone calls because of airlines' concerns about the potential for passenger backlash to noisy conversations. According to a U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics report Thursday, 45.2 percent of survey respondents said passengers should definitely or probably should not be allowed to use cellphones even if there were not interference issues with aircraft communication systems.

But Aircell and the airlines do not plan to control what kind of Web sites passengers look at. An Aircell spokeswoman said the company trusts passengers to "use good judgment" and that flight attendants are trained to handle inappropriate situations.


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