Delta To Offer Wi-Fi Across Its U.S. Fleet

The airline is among several taking another swipe at wireless Internet access, using the technologies of two startup companies.
The airline industry is taking another swipe at providing Internet access to passengers. And depending on the airline and route, it'll be just a matter of weeks or months before passengers can surf the Web or check e-mail while in the air.

Delta said Monday it'll offer Wi-Fi across its domestic fleet next year, and American Airlines plans to start offering Wi-Fi on flights between New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami within days.

Australian airline Qantas plans to offer Wi-Fi on its new fleet of Airbus A380 jets going into service this month. Other airlines testing Internet services include Virgin America, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and Jet Blue.

This is the industry's second attempt to get wireless Internet access right. In December 2006, Boeing abandoned its satellite-based Connexion in-flight service, citing lack of demand. Although several European and Asian airlines had carried the service, the original Connexion development partners -- American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines -- pulled out of the project not long after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But U.S. airlines are now flocking to new options for in-flight Internet services. Southwest and Alaska have been testing technology from a startup called Row 44 that uses Hughes' satellite-based Internet service. The company claims its equipment can be installed in planes over the course of two nights, compared to the weeks it took to install Connexion. Row 44's total equipment weight is about 150 lbs., "five times" less than the weight required to run the defunct Connexion service, which created concerns about fuel costs, according to Row 44's Web site.

Delta is the first of the U.S.-based airlines to commit to a full-bore Wi-Fi rollout across its fleet, but it's offered through a contract with a company called Aircell, which offers the Gogo Internet service. Delta says it'll offer Gogo on 330 domestic planes by mid-2009, priced at $9.95 for flights of less than three hours and $12.95 for longer flights. More than 100 MD88/90 aircraft will be first in line to get the service in early 2009; about 200 remaining planes -- Boeing 737, 757, and 767-300 aircraft -- will get it within the following six months.

Aircell's equipment weight is just 125 lbs. per plane, and the company says it can do an installation in a single night. Aircell won an FCC frequency license in 2006, and earlier this year completed work on a dedicated broadband cellular network for commercial and business aviation. Aircell says it'll expand network availability as user demand grows, by adding new towers and additional antenna to existing towers. The company has received $265 million in venture capital funding from Scotia Capital, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, and others.

American Airlines and Virgin America, like Delta, are using the Aircell technology and network.

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