It's long been in the negotiating phase, but Southwest Airlines has finally signed a deal with Row44, the satellite-based in-flight Internet provider, to outfit its entire fleet of 540 Boeing 737s with Row44's broadband system.
Other major airlines, among them Delta, American, Virgin America, United, US Airways, and AirTran already have deals with a land-based Internet provider, Aircell's Gogo service, and to date more than 725 mainline planes have Gogo installed. Continental is also about to install Gogo on 21 of its 757s, as part of a test as it also installs DirecTV on many planes.
As I keep pointing out, the big question is how many people will actually pay for domestic in-flight WiFi service, the per-flight price of which can range up to $12.95 (though it's oiften half that for hand-held wireless devices, and many promotional offers have been luring users). To date, from what I am told by top industry sources, the "take rate," that is, the percentage of people who opt to buy, is a disappointing 5-7 percent per flight, though some flights such as Virgin America's non-stops between San Francisco and New York, come in higher because of the number of techies on that route. Also, Virgin American has a very high-quality in-flight entertainment system with interactive capabilities that integrates the WiFi services.
Here's the announcement off the Southwest blog on its Web site today:
"Hello everyone! You probably saw the title of this blog post and thought, “haven't I heard that before?” True, the road to onboard wi-fi has been a long one, but this week we took a major step that gets us closer to rolling out the system fleetwide. We ended the equipment "testing" phase and signed an equipment purchase contract with our wi-fi provider, Row 44. That means we now begin the process of getting equipment ordered and aircraft scheduling in place to begin our full fleet installation.
"We’ll begin installing the equipment in the second quarter of 2010. We expect to install equipment on around 15 aircraft per month initially, with the goal of increasing that number to 25 aircraft a month as we ramp up the process. With this schedule, we estimate that our full fleet of more than 540 planes will be outfitted with wi-fi service by early 2012.
"So, on to the next pressing issue… what will it cost to connect?. We don’t have an answer to that quite yet. We’re still testing a variety of price points on the four aircraft that currently have wi-fi. We’ll have a decision on price in the second quarter of 2010—rest assured that, just like our fares, it will be a great value. You can count on it!
"We’re excited about this new inflight amenity and we promise it will be well worth the wait! We’ll have more updates along the way, but, in the meantime, keep booking those Southwest flights! Your chances of traveling on a wi-fi plane will increase soon!..."