Airlines expand in-flight WiFi options, for a fee

Where can't you get a wireless Internet connection these days? Borat's mud hut in Kazakhstan? Inside your great-grandmother's basement?

Get ready to take another place off your list: riding in a jet at 30,000 feet.

About 500 commercial airliners flying around the United States are equipped with WiFi, a number that will double by year's end. Virgin America and AirTran Airways offer the service in all their aircraft. Delta Air Lines has 217 jets with WiFi and says its entire domestic fleet will be ready by fall.

American equipped 15 long-haul 767s and is slowly expanding the service to smaller jets. Other big names with WiFi plans or ongoing tests include United, US Airways and Southwest.

Financially flailing airlines smell a new revenue stream. But they're struggling with a critical unknown: Will travelers accustomed to free WiFi in hotels, coffee shops and airports pay for it inside an airplane?

"It's one of those convenience-vs.-cost issues," said Robert Mann, a consultant and former airline executive in Port Washington, N.Y. "Airlines don't know what that price is yet."

Southwest, wrapping up tests, is hearing travelers loudly and clearly. "Customers want to be connected, and they want it to be free," Doug Murri, the airline's senior manager of technologies for flight operations, recently told a trade industry workshop.

Carriers and the dominant WiFi provider, Aircell's Gogo Inflight Internet, aren't giving details of how many travelers are buying the service. Only Virgin America offered up a range of 10 to 15 percent.

The cheapest fee is $5.95 for flights of 90 minutes or less. But WiFi is a hard sell for broadband Internet access, e-mail and text messaging on short flights. For trips longer than three hours, the price goes up to $12.95. People traveling with handheld devices such as a smart phone or BlackBerry pay a flat $7.95 for any flight.

For a frequent flier, or anyone making multiple stops, single-flight charges run up quickly, said Tom Weigman, Aircell's executive vice president of wireless services. Once more planes get equipped, carriers will offer discounts, such as a 30-day pass Delta recently offered for $49.99.

The biggest obstacle during the rollout is that customers can't figure out ahead of time which flights have WiFi and which don't. "As people know it's there, they'll set aside time for this activity," Weigman says.

The flip side: As WiFi on planes becomes routine, travelers may be compelled to stay connected because bosses and co-workers expect it.

Good for the work wonks back at the office. But travelers who savor their quiet time in the air will long for the days before the electronic leash grew longer.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Airlines expand in-flight WiFi options, for a fee 07/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 10:54pm]

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