Wireless Networking

American Takes Lead in Sky-High WiFi Race

The race is over for domestic airlines looking to turn their planes into flying WiFi hotspots; American Airlines is first off the runway. But can offering onboard Internet access help smooth out passenger turbulence created by additional charges for carry-on bags, food, even blankets and pillows?

American on Wednesday began looking for the answer to that question as it rolled out in-flight broadband access on 15 of its 767-200 jets now flying transcontinental routes. The carrier, using technology called “Gogo,” developed by Colorado-based Aircell, will charge US$12.95 for that access. American officials say they’ll consider adding more flights and routes after gauging customer reaction to the service over the next three to six months.

By this time next year, in-flight Web access could be fairly common. Aircell recently announced that it would soon be providing Delta and Virgin America with its air-to-ground broadband technology. The company is in “various stages of negotiations with all U.S.-based carriers,” Fran Phillips, Aircell’s executive vice president of airline solutions, told TechNewsWorld. Southwest Airlines says it will start testing a satellite-based Internet system in the fall.

A Sky-High Interview With Aircell’s CEO

Aircell CEO Jack Blumenstein was on one of those American flights debuting Gogo Wednesday. TechNewsWorld e-mailed him a question while he was en route from New York to Los Angeles: Is Gogo’s service good enough to win back airline customers’ goodwill, after putting up with several years of long lines, crowded airplanes and extra fees?

“You are absolutely on-point about giving passengers a reason to smile, as a number are around me this afternoon,” Blumenstein e-mailed back from somewhere over Ohio. “The purser on this flight just came up to tell me about the happy reactions she has been getting from passengers. I get the feeling she doesn’t get that too often.”

TechNewsWorld also asked Bluemenstein to address security issues on behalf of business travelers who want access to confidential information and networks while flying. “We support most corporate VPNs (virtual private networks) so that passengers can utilize the service in full compliance with their business security requirements. In addition, we are also working with ISPs that serve corporations (iPass is one that we’ve announced) so that passengers who are required to gain access through that enhanced security service can also use Gogo.”

The Internet at 35,000 Feet

“We incorporate technology that’s being used on the ground, but of course there’s a lot of extra work that makes it happen at 500 mph and at 35,000 feet,” Phillips told TechNewsWorld. “Our system works very well. Just as at a hotspot on the ground, occasionally you have slowdowns, but for the most part we’ve seen that passengers have loved it. They’ve told us that it’s a game-changer. They get constant coverage unaffected by weather or turbulence.”

Aircell’s technology development began in earnest shortly after it won an auction in 2006 for the spectrum segment originally designated for in-flight phone service, Phillips said. That was followed by testing on Aircell’s private fleet of planes, installation on American’s jets and a rigorous FAA approval process.

“We considered a number of different options when we looked at this technology,” John Tiliacos, managing director for onboard products at American Airlines, told TechNewsWorld. “The reason we went with Aircell is that they offer the most robust option out there. The equipment is lightweight equipment, so from a fuel perspective we’re not concerned there.”

Previous Attempts to Connect

There are plenty of concerns regarding Internet access for air carriers. Amid much media fanfare, Lufthansa launched in-flight Web access via Boeing’s satellite-based Connexion service in 2004, but that was discontinued two years later following reports of spotty service and expensive equipment installation. Neither Phillips or Tiliacos would comment on installation costs for Gogo’s equipment.

Southwest Airlines is committed to satellite-based in-flight Web service, provided by Westlake Village, Calif.-based Row 44, spokesperson Whitney Eichinger told TechNewsWorld.

“We think that the satellite-based connectivity, for us, is a more robust experience for our customers,” Eichinger said. “We believe it’s more consistent than air-to-ground. We want to test it to see what the customer experience is before we install it on all our aircraft.”

A January news release from Southwest announced that testing on four aircraft would happen in summer, but Eichinger said those plans have been pushed back to the fourth quarter of this year.

“The huge issue has been the cost of putting the systems into the planes,” Donald Schenk, president of Airline Capital Associates told TechNewsWorld. “It’s made it very difficult to have a reasonable expectation to earn money off the system.”

The $12.95 price for consistent service would be acceptable to business travelers, Schenk said. “I think an awful lot of people will find it attractive. Twelve dollars for a five-hour flight is nothing, if it provides sufficiently fast service for people who like to surf the Web and aren’t driven crazy by slow speeds. The business traveler doesn’t surf the Web — they want to send and receive e-mails. It’s pretty straightforward and you don’t need tremendous connectivity to do that.”

Safe Surfing While Airborne

For those who might want to access adult material while flying, Tiliacos says American’s current policies against flight disruptions should help protect young ones from getting an eyeful from passengers seated next to them.

“As we do with other content we provide onboard, we trust that our customers will use good judgment and that will prevail,” he said. “Our flight attendants are pretty well trained to deal with and handle situations where someone is displaying inappropriate content.”

Although Gogo can monitor Web activity from the ground, “we will not monitor which Web sites they’re going to,” Phillips said. “But we can see what people are doing, and if somebody’s being a bandwidth hog, we have the capability to adjust what they are doing so that every passenger on board has a good experience.”

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