Airlines Get Ready to Test Fledging Wi-Fi in Flight

In-flight Wi-Fi will eventually take off for passengers aboard some U.S. airlines, but it won't happen before months of testing and slow rollouts of the wireless service.

American Airlines will have one of the largest deployments, with a formal test expected to start "in the coming weeks," a spokeswoman said. The test will be performed on 15 jets and will run for as long as six months. Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Virgin America and Jet Blue also have limited tests or projects underway.

Some airlines have already announced that pricing will be roughly in line with what it might cost to connect to a Wi-Fi network in an airport for a day -- about $10 to $12. American has stated that its wireless service will cost $12.95 for flights that are three hours or longer.

None of the U.S. carriers investing in Wi-Fi expects to offer voice service. They cite federal regulations prohibiting phone calls during flights -- not to mention negative public opinion about the idea of fellow passengers talking on the phone aboard planes. However, some analysts say that if data services for e-mail, instant messaging and Web browsing are a big hit, then carriers might want to add voice service as well.

A big unknown is the performance of the technology itself, including the connection speeds a user will get on a Wi-Fi-capable laptop or handheld device. That's because early test results aren't being made public. However, the airlines say the performance a user sees will be on par with Wi-Fi access inside a coffee shop.

The Wi-Fi signal carried throughout a plane will connect to the Internet via either satellites or antennas on the ground. Some analysts say a satellite connection, such as that offered by Row 44 Inc. in Westlake Village, Calif., will provide the greatest coverage. However, American said it has seen success using a ground-to-air system connected to 92 cellular antennas erected nationwide by Aircell LLC, which has offices in Denver and Itasca, Ill.

Adding in-flight Wi-Fi could be an important distinguishing service in today's airline industry, as carriers cut back on amenities and charge for extra baggage as they struggle with soaring fuel costs, several analysts noted.

"Airlines are doing what they can to steal customers, " said Robert McAdoo, a financial analyst at Avondale Partners LLC in Nashville, who tracks 19 airlines. "But the airlines have to be realistic as to how many customers will pay for Wi-Fi. There will clearly be some users ... [but] there's a question of whether Wi-Fi is going to be big on planes or not."

Here's a rundown on the status of Wi-Fi at several carriers, based on recent interviews and statements:

American Airlines

American ran a free "dress rehearsal" of Wi-Fi service on June 24 aboard a Boeing 767-200 during a regularly scheduled round trip between New York's JFK International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.

American and Aircell both said they were studying the results of the test and refused to give details, although an Aircell spokeswoman said "customers were excited" about the service.

The most information on the American Wi-Fi offering so far has come from Walt Mossberg, a reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, who wrote about American's service on June 19 based on his own in-flight test on a small jet. Mossberg said he could browse the Web, send e-mail and conduct text chats wirelessly, using two laptops and three kinds of handhelds.

Mossberg said the service he received operated at "respectable" speeds comparable to those of a slow home DSL line, with download speeds averaging 500Kbit/sec. to 600Kbit/sec, and uploads at 250Kbit/sec. to 300 Kbit/sec., he said. There was a two-minute disruption in the service when the plane had to cross through a zone where wireless service wasn't available via ground antennas, he said.

Mossberg said the service, called GoGo, will launch on three American routes, probably in July, on 15 Boeing 767s that fly between New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami.

While Mossberg said the service will probably start in July, an American spokeswoman would only say that plans about a launch date would be made available in "coming weeks."

American's "launch" is really a three-to-six-month formal test of the service. After the test, American will decide whether to expand the service to other aircraft and other routes, the spokeswoman said. American has more than 500 planes in all.

"After the trial is completed, [American] will thoroughly evaluate whether this service is of value to our customers," the spokeswoman said in an e-mail. "If the connectivity solution is deemed successful on the B767-200 aircraft, it will be [added to] additional domestic fleet."

Virgin America

Virgin America is also planning to begin testing Wi-Fi service using the Aircell technology in the fall, with its fleet of about 20 aircraft converted to Wi-Fi by the start of 2009, a spokeswoman said. The price will probably be similar to what is charged at an airport hot spot.

Virgin will run the wireless service inside the plane in conjunction with its Red in-flight entertainment system, which features a functioning PC in every seat. Launched in 2007, the Red system, which runs on Linux servers, is already used by flight attendants on Virgin to take food orders wirelessly.

"We [already] have a low-cost platform for delivering new [wireless] services," the spokeswoman said, noting that offering more and higher-quality entertainment services to customers is "even more critical" if passengers spend more time on an aircraft.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest, working with Row 44, said earlier in the year that it had hoped to begin testing Wi-Fi in midsummer. But in a recent update, it said it will begin testing on four aircraft in late summer. A charge for the service is under consideration "but nothing is solidified," a spokeswoman said, noting that Southwest still allows passengers to check two bags for free, unlike some competitors.

A Row 44 spokeswoman said the slight delay in the start of the Southwest testing is insignificant and there have been "no major complications" with the technology. She said the signal delivered from the satellite to each plane will move at 30Mbit/sec. ultimately offering faster service to end users than the Aircell service.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska plans to start testing its Row 44 technology on one aircraft in August, a spokeswoman said. The test will be conducted along one of the airline's typical routes, although which one has not been determined. The airline also plans to test various prices, as well as the system's performance and customer acceptance.

Alaska had hoped to roll out the technology earlier, with testing starting in the spring, but gaining various approvals took longer than expected, she added. If the trial works well, all 114 aircraft Alaska operates could be equipped with the technology.

JetBlue

JetBlue offered free wireless service as a test aboard one of its A320 jets last December. The service runs over a network called Kiteline, provided by LiveTV, which is also used to provide free in-flight television, a spokeswoman said. With the service, users can send e-mail and text messages through a variety of platforms, including Microsoft Exchange. JetBlue also has a contract with Amazon.com that enables passengers to make purchases from the online retail site via the wireless service.

So far, the spokeswoman said, JetBlue testing aboard the single aircraft has been "very successful," and the airline plans to use feedback from the test to develop a plan for a fleetwide rollout.

Both AirCell and Row 44 said they are working with other airlines considering in-flight Wi-Fi service, although they declined to name any.

A Big Draw or a Pricey Risk?

While the airlines and equipment providers are publicly optimistic about their rollout plans, analysts said questions remain about the market for the service as well as the capability of the technology.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates LLC in Northboro, Mass., said the airlines are probably taking time to weigh the costs of the new equipment against the number of passengers they expect to be willing to pay for it. "Can the airlines make this affordable and offer enough performance so that I will want to use the service?" Gold asked.

Many factors will come into play, including whether the shared Wi-Fi bandwidth will be sufficient to support performance that meets the needs of all of the users on a crowded business flight, Gold said.

The signal that AirCell is sending to planes works on an EV-DO Rev A cellular standard in an exclusive, licensed 800 MHz channel. With this arrangement, Gold said the signal in the Wi-Fi zone aboard a plane could be less than what users normally get with Wi-Fi.

"We are all are used to fast Wi-Fi now, and people can be very unforgiving of bad service," he said.

However, AirCell's chief technology officer, Joe Cruz, said the "effective user experience" will equal up to 12.4 Mbit/sec. because Aircell uses network optimization and acceleration technology.

Gold also questioned what would happen if a plane leaves its normal pathway to avoid a storm or air traffic, and he wondered how quickly a disrupted signal could be restored. Addressing those concerns, Cruz said that Aircell will have "blanket" coverage to prevent outages, and plans to expand its current 92 cell sites to nearly 500 in the next 18 months.

Gold also noted that Wi-Fi saps device batteries, meaning airlines will need to install power at every seat for long trips. (American said it already has many power outlets.)

Those concerns aside, there are still questions regarding cost and financing. AirCell and Row 44 presumably have developed technology that's more affordable than an older, discontinued wireless service called Connexion by Boeing, which was installed on Lufthansa and ANA planes, and was reported to cost more than $1 million per plane, Gold said. None of the airlines interviewed would comment on the cost of installing the technology.

Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney said the Connexion service was "very stable" and had minimal power needs, based on his experience. It failed, ultimately, because it was often available only on night flights when people weren't interested in using it, Dulaney said. Carriers will need to offer the service on the right routes, including daytime business routes with busy laptop users, he added.

The way the airlines finance of the service -- not just the performance of the technology -- will be the key to the success of in-flight Wi-Fi, Dulaney added. "If it required a capital outlay, domestically, I don't think the airlines could afford it," he said, referring to the tight economics that airlines have been facing for years.

McAdoo said he is unsure how popular Wi-Fi on planes will be, but he said it is clear that there will be some users, just as there are Wi-Fi users at airports. It's also possible that a renegade airline such as Southwest will find it so potentially popular that it sells monthly subscriptions to regular passengers, he said.

Wendy Campanella, director of business development at Row 44, said internal market studies have shown that Wi-Fi demand on planes will go beyond business travelers to younger leisure travelers who are accustomed to going online for entertainment and other needs.

"We do believe absolutely that broadband is coming to air travel and in the end will be a must-have service for airlines," Campanella said.

If Wi-Fi on planes proves popular, airlines would have to move fast to roll out the technology on hundreds of planes, McAdoo said. American and Southwest each have more than 500 planes, and even if two planes could be converted each week, it could take years to equip a majority of them.

"It's a slow spool up," McAdoo said. But Campanella disagreed, saying it could be a fast turnaround. Row 44 antennas and other equipment could be installed on a plane over the course of two nights during routine maintenance.

Wi-Fi service is the kind of offering that could excite airlines like Southwest that are willing to try new approaches, McAdoo noted. Even though all five airlines interviewed for this story said they don't believe their customers would want voice-over-Wi-Fi service, McAdoo predicted that the anti-phone-use attitude could change, meaning the airlines would need to lobby the Federal Communications Commission to change its current restrictions.

Noting that Ireland's Ryanair Ltd. is rolling out wireless technology to support both data and voice aboard its planes serving Europe this summer, McAdoo said the experience there could influence U.S.-based carriers.

"Ryanair is the Southwest Airlines of Europe, very successful and a little bit renegade," McAdoo said. "It will be interesting to see how voice does. Companies change for competition. They're always saying, 'What's next?'"

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