Skift Take

U.S. airlines are behind the times when it comes to Wi-Fi for international flights and it will take them a couple of years to roll it out.

If you are tired of resigning yourself to a Wi-Fi blackout when flying U.S. airlines to overseas destinations, with no hope of Internet access or email, then power up your smartphones, tablets and laptops and get ready for some connectivity and Web surfing.

The blackout is ending, and carriers such as United, Delta and American are making the promise that new, satellite-powered Wi-Fi for international flights will be a lot faster with more features, such as streaming video, than the current air-to-ground technology fueling domestic flights.

United Airlines revealed Oct. 25 that it has outfitted its first aircraft with Panasonic Avionics’ global, satellite-based Wi-Fi, and hopes to have that jet flying around, pending certifications, in November.

United doing makeovers

United’s plan is to have 300 of its 700 mainline aircraft in its domestic and international fleets equipped with the satellite-based Wi-Fi, and ready to go by the end of 2013.

Capable of connectivity when jetting over oceans, United’s Airbus 319s and 320s, plus its Boeing 747s, 757s, 767s, 777s, and 787s (i.e. the Dreamliner), are targeted for the makeovers.

“Because it is satellite-based, our customers will be able to stay in touch virtually everywhere they fly us around the globe, a key differentiator between us and our competitors,” says United CEO Jeff Smisek.

United, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and JetBlue all have satellite-based Wi-Fi in the works, and none has released the fine print on what content you’ll be able to retrieve and how much it will cost.

Smisek said United’s new satellite-based Wi-Fi system will feature “dynamic pricing” – presumably different fees depending on the length of the flight or perhaps day of the week – and the airline will provide free access to some websites, and charge for others.

It’s Gogo again for Delta

Partnering with its current Wi-Fi provider for domestic flights, Gogo, Delta plans in December and January to begin offering satellite-based Internet on its long-haul fleet of more than 150 jets. Delta’s Boeing 757s, which do the heavy lifting on transoceanic flights, are among the aircraft that will be retrofitted.

Photo courtesy Gogo

Delta already claims to have the world’s largest fleet of Wi-Fi-equipped aircraft, until now all air-to-ground based, and will have some 1,000 Internet-enabled planes in its fleet when installations are complete in 2015.

Paul Skrbec, a Delta spokesperson, points out that passengers won’t have to make two Wi-Fi purchases when connecting from one Delta flight to another.

“Once we complete our international Wi-Fi, our customers will be able to come to, and they will be able to buy a pass that will get them through their connection points,” Skrbec says.

American Airlines is tardy, but getting ready

Among other network carriers, American Airlines, too, is readying international Wi-Fi, but won’t get around to starting it until early 2014, the airline says.

That’s when American will be begin retrofitting all of its Boeing 777-200ERs, transforming them into two-class cabins that will feature lie-flat Business Class seats, as well as international Wi-Fi throughout the aircraft.

JetBlue’s free Wi-Fi tease

Meanwhile, JetBlue has been very late to the Wi-Fi game, with nothing in place at all, but revealed October 25 that its LiveTV business will start installing satellite-based Wi-Fi on its Airbus A320 aircraft in the first quarter of 2013, and then move on to its Embraer E190s.

Without providing any details, JetBlue CEO Dave Barger said the service will offer “free baseline connectivity with the option to upgrade to a paid premium service.”

“We believe the unrivaled speed and reliability of our Ka-band product will be a competitive advantage, particularly as we expand our presence in business-focused markets,” Barger said.

However, although JetBlue flies over-water routes to locales such as San Juan, St. Croix and St. Thomas, for example, JetBlue’s satellite-based Wi-Fi will initially be available only over the contiguous 48 states, a spokesperson says.

Not leading the pack

This flurry of activity by U.S. airlines finds them playing a bit of catch-up when compared with some international airlines. Emirates and Singapore Airlines, for example, already provide transoceanic Wi-Fi on select international flights.

But, it won’t be long before international travelers will have some flight-selection options among U.S. carriers when staying connected is an all-important – or just a fun – part of the trip.


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