Wi-Fi in the sky becoming a necessity, not a luxury

AirTran, American latest to detail plans to offer Web access

By Paul Makishima
Globe Staff / May 13, 2009
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The wireless Internet battle in the sky is quickly escalating to a dogfight.

Facing tough competition, the nation's airlines are viewing Wi-Fi, which they once saw as merely a desirable amenity, increasingly as a necessary feature.

AirTran Airways said yesterday that it plans to offer in-flight wireless Internet access on all 136 of its aircraft by midsummer. American, which has already equipped all its transcontinental aircraft, also said yesterday that it will have a total of 165 planes Wi-Fi-ready by the end of the year, with a goal of having 318, or nearly half its fleet, finished over the next few years.

The announcements follow similar moves by other airlines. Virgin America, which currently has the service on 24 of its 28 planes, has said it is on schedule to have the rest ready to go by Memorial Day. And on Monday, Delta Air Lines, which became the world's largest carrier after its merger last year with Northwest Airlines, said that it has Wi-Fi on 139 planes, or about half of its mainline domestic fleet, and will have the rest finished by September. Delta also expects to complete outfitting all 200 jets in Northwest's domestic fleet next year.

The airlines say they're offering the service because passengers, who are used to being able to connect with family, friends, and employers online at all times, are demanding it more and more.

"We had a website up called where people could tell us what they wanted, and in-flight Wi-Fi was at the top of the list," said Christopher White, an AirTran spokesman. And Susan Chana Elliott, a spokeswoman for Delta, agreed, saying customers "have made it clear to us they really want this."

Indeed, industry analysts say that Internet access has become so much a part of the fabric of everyday life that not having it puts an airline at a competitive disadvantage.

"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 es sential 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 Wi-Fi in-flight because they can stay in touch with family and friends, plan their journeys, and entertain themselves."

While many carriers are aggressively adopting Wi-Fi, 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. UAL Corp.'s United Airlines looks to start installing equipment on 13 transcontinental aircraft in the second half of 2009. And JetBlue Airways hopes to have 20 jets outfitted this year for a stripped-down service that would allow e-mail and instant-messaging.

For the most part, all the Wi-Fi 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 In-flight 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 not just be 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.

Paul Makishima can be reached at