WiFi service takes flight on some airlines

American Airlines launched in-flight WiFi service on three long-haul routes in the U.S. Wednesday, and will decide in three to six months whether to expand the service to other routes.

The launch is the largest of a recent surge of interest by airlines in providing in-flight Wi-Fi to their passengers. Earlier this month, Delta Air Lines Inc. said it will being rolling out the service on all its planes in the fall, while Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Virgin America and Jet Blue have Wi-Fi tests or limited projects underway.

The American launch provides a Wi-Fi network aboard 15 Boeing 767-200 aircraft serving three routes with nonstop flights between New York and San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles and New York and Miami, the airline said.

While Wednesday’s launch aboard the 15 Boeing aircraft was originally intended for July, “tweaks” had to be made to the system, especially to simplify the set up process for users, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The Wi-Fi service, called Gogo, is provided by Aircell LLC in Broomfield, Colo. and Itasca, Ill. Gogo connects each plane’s Wi-Fi hot spot to the ground over a 3 Mhz signal that connects to Aircell’s network of 92 cell towers throughout the continental U.S.

Users will be able to launch an Internet browser on a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or other device once a plane reaches 10,000 feet, where they will be directed to a GoGo portal to sign up for service with a credit card. The service will cost US$12.95 on each flight over three hours.

While users will have the ability to surf the Web, check e-mail, hold instant message conversations and access a corporate VPN, they will not be allowed to use voice over IP or any voice cell service while in the air. All the airlines setting up Wi-Fi have cited federal rules forbidding in-flight voice calls, but they have also said that too many users talking oncell phones would annoy other passengers.

American issued a statement saying Wi-Fi speeds in-flight will be comparable to mobile broadband on the ground, adding that video downloads during beta tests were similar to ground-based mobile broadband as well.

There were two recent dress rehearsals to fine-tune the technology, one aboard a flight in June and another last week, said the spokeswoman, September Wade. During the dress rehearsals, Aircell and American found that users needed fewer steps to setting up an account. “We wanted it simple for anybody, technical or not,” she said.

Some financial analysts who cover the airline industry are waiting to see how popular Wi-Fi will be, especially at a cost of $12.95 per use. The success of the American launch on the Boeing aircraft will determine how American proceeds, Wade said. The airlines will weigh both the business value and the effectiveness of the Wi-Fi network, she said.

With airlines facing financial difficulties due to high fuel costs and reduced business travel, there will be more pressure to show that an added feature such as Wi-Fi pays for itself, Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney noted in July. A Wi-Fi service called Connexion by Boeing, which was installed on Lufthansa and ANA planes, was discontinued because it wasn’t widely used and had been available mainly on night flights, Dulaney said.

“Customer response to GoGo will play a vital role” in whether American expands the service to other planes, Wade said. Some analysts also are watching how customers react to Wi-Fi service when they see battery life quickly diminish on their devices, but American said it is prepared with power outlets available at every seat in business and first class, and at least once every two rows in coach.

Officials wouldn’t comment on the cost of Wi-Fi installation per airplane, although each Aircell-equipped aircraft must have three antennas installed on the outside, two on the belly and one on top. Aircell arranged for the service through an exclusive Federal Communication Commission 800 MHz license, and plans to expand the number of cellular towers it operates from 92 to more than 500 in coming months, Aircell officials have said.

Aircell is also working on Delta’s Wi-Fi launch, as well as Virgin America’s, which expects to have 20 planes equipped with the wireless service by the start of 2009. Row 44 Inc. in Westlake, Calif., is providing a satellite-based connection for Wi-Fi service aboard Southwest and Alaska, with testing expected to begin on several planes of each carrier this month. JetBlue has already launched Wi-Fi on one plane using a connection called Kiteline.

Here’s a list of the best airlines for high-tech fliers.

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