After a successful trial run on limited flights, American Airlines said March 31 it was expanding its Wi-Fi Internet service to more than 300 domestic aircraft over the next two years. Teaming with airline Wi-Fi service provider Aircell, American will install wireless broadband on its domestic MD-80 and Boeing 737-800 aircraft fleets, beginning with 150 MD-80 aircraft this year.
Aircell's air-to-ground service known as Gogo turns an airliner into a Wi-Fi hotspot, allowing passengers to surf the Web, check e-mail, send instant messages and access a corporate VPN. While travelers can use any Wi-Fi-enabled device, such as a mobile phone or laptop, Internet phone calls are not allowed, due to Federal Aviation Administration restrictions. SMS text messaging and instant messaging, however, will be allowed.
"Our trial over the past six months offered customers the choice to remain connected to work, home or elsewhere when flying on American Airlines," Dan Garton, American's executive vice president of marketing, said in a statement. "And 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. We are pleased that the results were positive and that we have decided to move forward."
Aircell's price for the Gogo service ranges from $7.95 to $12.95 based on length of flight and whether the device is a handheld PDA or a laptop computer. Flights of more than three hours carry a charge of $12.95 and flights of less than three hours will charge $9.95. The charge for connecting a handheld device is $7.95, regardless of the flight time.
"The passenger response to Gogo Inflight Internet has exceeded even our own high expectations, with many people becoming frequent users who rely on it to stay connected to the office, friends and family in their travels," said Aircell President and CEO Jack Blumenstein. "We are excited to help American Airlines expand Gogo to the majority of its domestic fleet, enabling more of its passengers to turn flying time into 'me time.' With Gogo, flying becomes whatever you want it to be - productive, entertaining, informative, you name it."
In addition to American Airlines, Aircell is also partnering with Delta and Virgin America to provide onboard broadband. Delta began testing the Gogo service Dec. 16, offering Wi-Fi for $9.95 on half its flights between Boston's Logan, New York's LaGuardia and Washington's Reagan National airports. Delta said it plans to have its entire fleet of planes covered by May 31.
Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines are also moving to broadband service using Row 44's satellite-to-plane Wi-Fi technology. The Row 44 system provides downlink data rates averaging 30M bps and 620K bps maximum in the uplink direction. Along with providing broadband for passengers, Row 44's technology provides the airlines with a broadband link for operational data.
Row 44's major system components include a low-profile antenna mounted to the top of the fuselage. Four compact line-replaceable units are installed above the cabin headlining just below the antenna: a server management unit, a high power amplifier, an antenna control unit and a modem data unit. To distribute a Wi-Fi signal, one or more wireless access units are placed in the airplane cabin.
Alaska Airlines conducted a number of ground and in-flight tests of Row 44's technology to make sure the system doesn't interfere with aircraft navigation systems. The service is being offered on a trial basis and has not yet received final FCC approval.