Transport Airlines

Coming soon: International Wi-Fi on your favorite U.S. airlines

Dec 15, 2012 12:01 am

Skift Take

Satellite-based solutions are becoming the new norm for airlines after installation and extra fuel costs, justified of course by rising profits from passengers willing to pay to stay connected over land and sea.

— Samantha Shankman

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AAdvantageGeek  / Flickr.com

Screenshot of a new American Airlines Facebook promotion asking customers to share their opinion about in-flight Wi-Fi in May 2012. AAdvantageGeek / Flickr.com


Airline passengers can already get online 30,000 feet over Oklahoma. Soon U.S. airlines will offer Internet connections over the ocean, too.

United, Delta, and American — the nation’s three biggest airlines — said Wednesday that they’re within weeks of having their first international flights with Internet service.

It’s fairly common for passengers to check email and update Facebook while flying over the U.S. But the air-to-ground signal used by those planes won’t work over the ocean. So airlines are installing satellite-based systems to solve that problem.

The service

The three airlines have not yet disclosed pricing for the international Wi-Fi. United said prices will depend on the distance of the flight and other factors.

Travelers eager to stream a movie through their Netflix account are likely to be disappointed. Delta’s international Wi-Fi systems both will include computer servers on the plane with movies and TV shows that travelers can watch — for a fee. United has said that it, too, will have on-board streaming video.

For domestic flights, Delta currently charges 99 cents to watch TV shows and $3.99 for a movie.

Speeds on Delta’s current domestic Internet connection are good enough for email and basic Web browsing. Delta is upgrading its domestic fleet’s Internet connection to make it three times faster.

United hasn’t disclosed speeds on its new system, but CEO Jeff Smisek claimed in October that it will be consistently faster than what competitors have.

Who has what

For Internet connections over the U.S., Delta is out front. Roughly 800 Delta planes used on domestic flights — all but its smallest regional jets — have onboard Wi-Fi. American has installed it on about 400 planes, or 81 percent of its fleet.

United basically missed the first wave of onboard Wi-Fi — it’s on only 13 planes that fly between the U.S. East and West coasts.

Now it’s installing satellite-based Internet connections that work both in the U.S. and overseas. And it expects to have the first plane with that dual capability within the next few weeks and 300 by the end of 2013.

Delta Air Lines Inc. expects to have its first international plane ready for Internet access within 45 days, Chief Operating Officer Stephen Gorman said at an analyst presentation on Wednesday. Its whole fleet should have Internet access in the next 18 months to two years, he said.

American Airlines just got its first plane with international Internet access on Tuesday night, a new Boeing 777-300ER that it expects to begin hauling passengers by the end of next month. The service will become more widely available as the company gets new planes or overhauls some of its older 777s. A spokeswoman declined to offer details about how fast it will add international Wi-Fi.

Southwest Airlines Co. expects to have satellite-based Wi-Fi on about three-quarters of its fleet by the end of January, spokeswoman Katie McDonald said.

An exception

After a nine-month test, Australian airline Qantas dropped the service after just 5 percent of passengers paid for it. Cost was likely one factor — prices ranged from $13.60 to $42 U.S. dollars. And Qantas noted the flights from Australia to London and Los Angeles were overnight, when many passengers preferred to sleep.

Profitable?

In-flight Internet has overcome early doubts about whether passengers would pay enough for it to justify the cost. The gear that provides a wireless signal on the plane costs money and adds weight, which adds to the fuel bill on each flight.

The U.S. airlines clearly see it as a money-maker now, though. Even some of their youngest passengers are carrying Internet-enabled devices such as smartphones and hand-held games, making them potential Wi-Fi customers.

Smisek, the United CEO, said on a conference call in October that his airline will own the on-board equipment, allowing it to set pricing and steer passengers toward websites and its own streaming video. Airborne Wi-Fi lets United “establish a wide array of commercial agreements,” he said, boosting its value for the airline.

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