The wireless Internet battle in the sky is quickly escalating to a dogfight.
AirTran Airways said yesterday morning that it plans to offer in-flight, wireless, Internet access on all 136 of its aircraft by midsummer. Virgin America currently has the service on 24 of its 28 planes, and is on schedule have the rest ready to go by Memorial Day.
On Monday, Delta Air Lines, which became the world’s largest carrier after its merger last year with Northwest Airlines, announced that it has WiFi on 139 planes, or about half of its mainline domestic fleet, and will have the rest finished by September. The carrier also expects to complete outfitting all 200 jets in Northwest’s domestic fleet next year.
And American, which has already equipped all its transcontinental aircraft, says it will have a total of 165 planes WiFi-ready by the end of 2009, with a goal of having 318, or nearly half its fleet, finished over the next few years.
Facing tough competition, the nation's airlines are viewing WiFi, which they once saw as merely a desirable amenity, increasingly as a necessary feature.
“Going online at 35,000 feet isn't a ‘nice to have,’ ’’ said Henry H. Harteveldt, principal airline analyst for Forrester Research Inc. “In today's tough business climate, in-flight Wi-Fi is as essential as the beverage cart. Business people need to stay in touch with their clients and colleagues, as well as stay on top of the volatile business environment. Leisure travelers appreciate WiFi in-flight because they can stay in touch with family and friends, plan their journeys, and entertain themselves.’’
While many carriers are aggressively adopting WiFi, others are at the very least kicking the tires. Southwest Airlines, which carries more passengers than any other US airline, is testing the service on four planes and is looking at the prospects for expansion. JetBlue hopes to have 20 planes outfitted this year for a stripped-down service that would allow e-mail and instant-messaging.
For the most part, all the services work the same. Passengers pay a fee, generally about $8 to $13 depending on the length of the flight, and the service is supplied by a contractor, the largest being Aircell LLC of Itasca, Ill., under its Gogo Inflight Internet brand.
The airlines, which have been garnering increasing amounts of revenue from the assorted fees they’ve launched in the past couple years, expect the service will be not just popular but profitable.
“On a coast-to-coast weekday flight, airlines tell me that it's not uncommon to sometimes have two dozen or more passengers online simultaneously,’’ Harteveldt said. “That could turn into a nice revenue stream long-term for airlines as the product becomes more widely available and more passengers begin using it.’’
But analysts say that the service also eventually could yield significant savings as it may let airlines remove their in-flight entertainment systems, leaving passengers to access the many media options available online. Getting rid of the systems would reduce the weight of planes, making them more fuel efficient, and free the carriers from having to pay for licensing entertainment content.