Monday, May 25, 2009

Airlines Are Rushing To Add WiFi To Planes


Some airlines are rushing to offer Wi-Fi Internet connections in their domestic aircraft cabins, but none is talking about the space squeeze.

On an AirTran Airways Wi-Fi demonstration flight that went up and back down the Northeast seaboard from Baltimore-Washington International Airport last week, the Internet worked just fine. The problem was being able to use it efficiently. My laptop was wedged onto a tray table in the cramped space of a coach seat. I had to slide down in my seat just to read the screen.

"I have the same experience," said Jack W. Blumenstein, the chief executive of Aircell, the company that is providing nearly all of the Wi-Fi installations so far for domestic carriers. "The laptop's at an angle or it's propped up almost on my nose."

"Or I'm typing like this," Blumenstein said from his own coach seat on the flight. He slouched down, raised both hands and wriggled his fingers like someone scratching on a window.

Delta Air Lines also is speedily installing Wi-Fi. It previously announced that it was putting the service on its entire mainline domestic fleet of more than 300 aircraft, and said the day before the AirTran demonstration that it had the Aircell Wi-Fi system on half its airplanes and would have the other half converted by September.

The rush to go Wi-Fi makes for an interesting horse race in the North American airline industry, where American Airlines, United, Virgin America and Air Canada all are installing Aircell's Gogo system.

But there are handicaps, including the lack of electrical outlets in most coach cabins (so use is limited by battery life) and the question of how much demand there is for an Internet hookup at the prices being contemplated. AirTran, for example, charges $9.95 for flights under three hours and $12.95 for those over three hours.

Furthermore, Brancatelli argued, those who are inclined to use Wi-Fi on a flight, including business travelers drawn by the potential for increased productivity, are exactly the people who most resist being nickel-and-dimed for services such as Internet connections in a hotel -- or on an airplane.

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