Alaska Airlines To Offer Aircell Wi-Fi

The airline has dropped plans to install Row 44's satellite wireless Internet on its planes and will instead go with the cellular-based Gogo system.
Alaska Airlines has dropped Row 44's satellite-based Wi-Fi system for Aircell's cellular-based Gogo system to provide Internet service on its entire 115-aircraft fleet.

Announced Wednesday, Alaska Airlines said it is already working with Aircell to make a test installation of the Gogo service on a Boeing 737-800. More than two years ago, Alaska Airlines said it had tested the Row 44 service and hoped to install its entire aircraft fleet with the service by the end of 2009.

By capturing the Alaska Airlines contract, Aircell adds to the burgeoning portfolio of airlines using its Gogo service, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Virgin America. AirTran Airways has already outfitted its entire 136-aircraft fleet with the Gogo service.

A spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines indicated that Aircell's equipment was priced lower than Row 44's gear and that Aircell demonstrated it could install the gear quickly. She added that Alaska Airlines expects to have its fleet equipped with Aircell gear by the end of the year.

While both systems -- Aircell's cellular operation and Row 44's satellite-based system -- deliver Wi-Fi service to passengers, their delivery methods are different. Aircell's service is based on a network of terrestrial cell towers while Row 44's service is based on satellite technology provided by Hughes Network Systems. Row 44 had an early advantage with Alaska Airlines over the Aircell service because Row 44's satellite service could operate over ocean expanses to locations like Hawaii and parts of Mexico.

Aircell indicated it will establish additional terrestrial equipment in Alaska to accommodate the airline. "To ensure the service is available to the airline's namesake state," the airline said in a release, "Aircell will expand its network to provide Gogo flight Internet service on flights to, from, and between key destinations in the state of Alaska."

Alaska Airlines, which is based in Seattle, noted that it had "successfully tested" Row 44 service, but had ultimately chosen the Gogo service "to speed fleet-wide installation and Wi-Fi availability for customers."

"With more than 730 systems already flying, Aircell has a proven track record of deploying affordable in-flight Wi-Fi services to airline customers," said Steve Jarvis, Alaska Airline's VP of marketing, sales, and customer experience, in a statement. "Their reliable, lower-cost equipment can be installed quickly."

Row 44 recently landed a contract with Southwest Airlines to install its service on Southwest's entire 540-aircraft fleet. Row 44 also has additional contracts to install its system on European-based aircraft.

In an e-mail, Row 44 CEO John Guidon said, "We are disappointed we could not work out a mutually agreeable business relationship (with Alaska Airlines). But based on information we learned during their successful passenger trial, we know passengers were extremely satisfied with our service, including coverage into Canada and the far reaches of the airline's namesake state."

A few years ago, Boeing folded its Connexion Wi-Fi service after spending a reported $1 billion on the satellite-based project. The service couldn't be used in the Continental U.S. and it the equipment was very heavy. Customers, however, liked the service when it was offered on transoceanic flights. On all U.S. Wi-Fi services, voice calling is blocked in keeping with regulatory agency rulings.

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Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer