Airlines Get Ready to Test Fledging Wi-Fi in Flight

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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.

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