American Airlines Plans Fleet Of Flying Wi-Fi Hotspots

Service is scheduled for 150 domestic MD-80s this year to be followed by the rollout of the Wi-Fi service on Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
After testing Gogo's Inflight Internet service on 15 of its passenger jets, American Airlines has decided to install the Wi-Fi service on a third of its 900 aircraft over the next two years.

American Airlines said it will start the deployment process by installing the Gogo service on 150 domestic MD-80s this year, to be followed by the rollout of the Wi-Fi service on Boeing 737-800 aircraft.

"Our trial over the past six months offered customers the choice to remain connected," Dan Garton, American's executive VP of marketing, said in a statement Tuesday. "It also gave us the ability to study customers' willingness to take advantage of high-speed, onboard connectivity and to gauge how the service performed technically in a variety of settings over an extended period of time."

The Gogo service, provided by Aircell, utilizes a network of ground towers beaming signals to three small antennas located on each airplane. The ground-to-air system also is being deployed on other U.S. airline fleets including Delta Air Lines, which already has deployed the service on several planes. Aircell built its system by purchasing spectrum after Verizon Communications gave up its seatback Airfone system.

Garton said the tests, carried out on 15 Boeing 767-200 planes, were successfully tested on flights between New York's Kennedy Airport and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami. In essence, the service turns passenger jets into flying Wi-Fi hotspots after the jets reach 10,000 feet, letting passengers use their laptops and smartphone handsets to surf the Web. Users, however, won't be able to make VoIP calls.

The Federal Communications Commission has outlawed in-flight phone calls after airline crew unions and potential passengers complained about possible distractions of calling. The no-calls anathema in the U.S. airline industry runs counter to the experience in Europe, where OnAir's in-flight communications services, including calling, have been welcomed by passengers and crews.

American is pricing the service at $12.95 for flights longer than three hours and $9.95 for flights shorter than three hours. Customers using smartphone handsets will pay $7.95 to use the service for short and long flights.

A competing service is offered by Row 44's satellite technology, which utilizes satellite technology. Southwest Airlines said recently that it plans to test the Row 44 service. The Row 44 service is also used by Alaska Airlines. Boeing's earlier satellite-based service was canceled after the aircraft builder installed it on several international flights.

New dual-mode cellular/Wi-Fi systems and standards may fulfill the promise of just one mobile device that works anywhere. InformationWeek has published an independent analysis of this topic. Download the report here (registration required).