Thursday, July 23, 2009

US Airways Latest to Opt for In-Flight Wi-Fi

US Airways is finally climbing onto the Wi-Fi bandwagon. The airline said today it had chosen Aircell, the leading supplier of in-flight broadband connectivity, to install the service, starting early next year.

That leaves Continental alone among the legacy carriers in not signaling its intentions, at least, regarding Wi-Fi.

Aircell has already installed its Gogo-branded service on about 675 aircraft. AirTran and Virgin America now have it on their entire fleets. Delta, Aircell's biggest customer, has been busily installing Gogo and expects to have its mainline domestic fleet completed by the end of September. Not far behind is American, with United saying it also plans to install Gogo.

US Airways said that Aircell's Gogo -- which costs about $100,000 per plane to install -- will initially be installed on its A321 aircraft on "select routes." A map showing those routes is on the airline's Web site. [Good luck with that. I couldn't find it readily and life is too short to waste any more of a fine summer morning in the desert fiddling with the US Air Web site!]

Later next year, customers will be able to see if Wi-Fi is available on a specific flight by looking for the Wi-Fi icon while booking a flight on, the airline said.

Pricing hasn't been set yet. Aircell’s standard pricing ranges ranges from $5.95 to $12.95, depending on the length of flight and type of Wi-Fi-enabled device used.

Wi-Fi is the only major customer-service initiative the airlines seem to be going for these days. Now that Aircell has bagged another major airline, the big question is, what does Southwest do?

Southwest has been testing a different system in partnership with a company called Row44, which is Aircell's only serious competitor. Southwest is testing the service on four aircraft. Alaska Air has also tested Row44 on a single aircraft.

Southwest hasn't yet announced whether it will install Row44's Wi-Fi system on its entire fleet of about 535 Boeing 737s. Testing will continue through the summer.

If you're flying Southwest, there's no way to know at booking if your plane is one of the four with the service. But 24 hours before departure, Southwest notifies you by e-mail if it is.

There's a big difference between Aircell and Row44 technology. Aircell uses land-based cell towers, which means that Gogo is not able to provide service over oceans. Row44 is a satellite-based system, fully capable of transoceanic service.

It would seem odd that Southwest, which doesn't fly transoceanic, would partner with a satellite Wi-Fi company, but Row44 says that satellite delivery provides a faster and more consistent-quality connection than land-based delivery in which connections are shifted from one point to another on the ground.

Row44 won't say how much it costs to install its systems on an airplane, except to say that the cost is considerably higher than Aircell's installation cost.

Expect an announcement by Southwest on its intentions regarding a fleet-wide rollout sometime in the early fall, if not sooner.


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