WiFi - The 'Next Big Thing' in Air Travel

By Ed Perkins on Travel

Gogo Inflight Internet Demo on AirTran Flight

Settle into your seat, open your laptop, notebook computer or high-tech phone, and spend the remaining flight hours sorting your email, keeping up with the news, discovering you could have found a flight for less than you paid, and most of the other things you do online. That's an increasingly likely scenario as the domestic airlines scramble to find "value added" features for their dreary and uncomfortable coach product -- especially features that bring in more revenue. Onboard WiFi is the new "hot" feature. All you need to use it is a computer or "handheld device" with WiFi capability (802.11 a/b/g) plus a few bucks for the service. About the only online service you can't get -- yet -- is VOIP telephone.

So far, Aircell's Gogo system is the only WiFi service available to U.S. airlines. The system, like cellular phone service, depends on a nationwide network of ground stations, each with a limited coverage area. According to Gogo, virtually all the 48-state continental U.S. is covered, as is a border area of Canada in the Detroit/Windsor-Montreal corridor and border areas of Mexico. The technology does not permit use on intercontinental over-ocean flights.

Standard Gogo pricing depends on the length of your flight. For full service on laptops the rates are $5.95 for up to 1-1/2 hours, $9.95 for 1-1/2 to three hours, and $12.95 for flights over three hours. For use limited to handheld devices, the rate is $7.95 for flights of more than 1-1/2 hours. Alternately, you can buy multi-flight "passes" on AirTran or Delta at $12.95 for 24 hours or, on those lines plus Virgin America, $49.95 for 30 days. Some airlines may elect to provide Gogo service "free" to premium customers or offer modified rate plans.

To date, six domestic U.S. lines have signed up for the service:

-- AirTran has installed WiFi on all its planes. However, the line's planes do not have power points, so travelers on longer flights should schlep extra battery packs.

-- American has installed Gogo on all 767-200 flights (mainly used for "Flagship" transcon services) and "select" MD80s, with installation on the line's 737s coming "soon." American's planes typically provide power points at every premium class seat, but coach travelers will have to share power with a handful of others. American's Website and SeatGuru.com provide seating charts that show seats with power.

-- Delta says that as of mid-July, 205 of its planes (about two-thirds of the pre-merger fleet) have WiFi, with the remainder scheduled for completion by the end of the year. Delta will install WiFi on ex-Northwest planes by next summer. Delta's Website lists specific planes that have WiFi installed, including all MD88s, MD90s, and some other ex-Delta models. Power connections for 110 volts are available on all business and first-class seats on domestic 737, 767-300, and transcendental 757s; DC power points are available in first and business class on 767-400s.

-- Virgin America offers Gogo on all flights. Each three-seat set has two power points, so most travelers should have no problem keeping online, even on long flights.

-- United and US Airways are a bit late to the game. United plans to add Gogo to its "P.S." transcons from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco by this fall and US Airways will equip its A321s by the end of next year.

Aircell says that Air Canada will add the service "soon." Presumably, that means after Aircell has added necessary ground stations in Canada.

Given the miseries of coach travel, my guess is that onboard WiFi will prove extremely popular -- so much so that Alaska, Continental, Frontier, and Southwest have to be looking hard at adding the service. WiFi would also be welcome on long overseas flights, as well, but overseas access depends on satellite service, which so far has not met with much success. However, once hooked on domestic flights, many travelers will demand it overseas, too. Stay tuned.



Travel | WiFi - The 'Next Big Thing' in Air Travel