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Airlines aim to lift Wi-Fi to the skies

Julie Johnsson
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO — The race is on for U.S. carriers such as Delta Air Lines, AirTran Airways and American Airlines, which are scrambling to make broadband as common at 30,000 feet as it is in the corner coffee shop.

Wi-Fi is emerging as an important selling point for airlines, as well as a new source of in-flight entertainment for passengers on domestic flights, analysts said.

At stake as carriers speed installation of the Internet service are bragging rights and an important new lure for BlackBerry-addicted passengers at a time when competition for business travelers remains fierce.

"It's like the 1950s space race," said aviation consultant Robert Mann. "They're racing to get it in place before business travelers return in force. Hopefully, both will happen quickly."

AirTran surged with an announcement Tuesday that it intended to install Wi-Fi in all 136 of its jetliners by mid-summer.

But Delta remains a nose ahead. A fierce AirTran rival in Atlanta, where both have major hubs, Delta provides Wi-Fi on 139 jets, with plans to make Internet access available in more than 500 by next year, said spokeswoman Susan Elliott.

Upstart Virgin America, meanwhile, claims it will be the first across the finish line, rolling out broadband across its fleet of 28 planes by Memorial Day.

While carriers have mulled broadband for nearly decade, they've only recently begun making the service available to passengers.

Given the strong early response from a nation addicted to laptops and iPhones, carriers are accelerating the rate at which they outfit planes with the technology.

American Airlines, which tested the service on 15 larger jets that fly cross-country routes, plans to have it in place on 150 of its MD-80 narrow-body aircraft by year-end.

"Having Wi-Fi on a plane is as essential as a beverage cart," Henry Harteveldt, airline analyst with Forrester Research Inc., said via e-mail. "Provided it's priced correctly, in-flight Wi-Fi will appeal to both business and leisure travelers, especially the 'next generation' of travelers, people 18 to 43 years old."

All airlines offering the service, aside from Southwest and Alaska Airlines, have purchased Gogo Inflight Internet, developed by Aircell. It links planes to land-based towers to provide mobile broadband at about the same speeds as users on the ground. Southwest and Alaska have opted for a satellite-based service called Row 44.

Analysts think Wi-Fi could shake up competitive dynamics in aviation.

"This is aimed primarily at business travelers, but I suspect many will use it," Mann said. "If you're judged to be a laggard, you may not be a first choice."

Chicago-based United Airlines plans to deploy broadband on a limited basis in the second half of this year, while Continental and US Airways are weighing their options.

Southwest is testing its satellite-based service in four aircraft to gauge customers' response before it decides whether to put the technology in all of its aircraft.

Texas-based Southwest isn't worried about losing ground to other carriers while it works out the kinks, said spokeswoman Brandy King. Its satellite technology provides more bandwidth than Gogo's, King said, so there's less chance service will be interrupted or slow down if too many log on at the same time.

"Wi-Fi implementation is a large investment and a significant customer-service opportunity, but only if the end product works well," King said. "Doing it quickly is not as important as doing it right."

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd sees another downside to in-flight Wi-Fi: the difficulty of viewing laptop screens in cramped aircraft cabins.

"If the person in the seat in front of you reclines, you're done. People will sit there scrunched up, looking at a screen. It's going to be great for chiropractors," he said.

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