AirTran Secretly Starts Deploying WiFi Fleetwide

For months, we’ve heard airlines go back and forth with wifi announcements. One airline says it’ll test wifi. Another says it’ll put it on the entire domestic fleet. Another says it’ll test it on aircraft made in odd-numbered years (or not). But you get the point. Airlines like talking about this a lot . . . except for Airtran Installing Wifi FleetwideAirTran. They hadn’t said a word about wifi until today. Now they say the entire fleet will be outfitted by the end of July.

How are they doing it so quickly? Well, they started doing this stealthily about a month ago. Now I guess they have enough critical mass that they’re ready to start talking about it. And they’ve made a heck of a splash – if you saw the Today Show this morning, they were broadcasting live from above, taking a page from the Virgin America playbook.

Delta has to be a little pissed off right now. They’ve been the most proactive of all and it was just yesterday that they announced they were nearly half done with their installation on their domestic fleet. They’ll finish up in September, and I bet they hoped they’d at least have a short competitive advantage over their chief competitor in Atlanta. (That’s AirTran.) They won’t since AirTran will be done with their fleet in July.

But let’s be honest. None of these competitive advantages are going to last very long. We’re in the transition phase where airlines are jumping all over each other to try to make the biggest PR splash. Broadcasting from above is just one example of the lengths airlines are willing to go to get it stuck in the public’s heads that they have wifi onboard. But this phase won’t last very long.

I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of planes flying domestically will have some form of internet up and running in short order. American, Delta, AirTran, and Virgin America will all have wifi on their whole domestic fleets soon. Southwest and Alaska are testing it. United will be soon. JetBlue and Continental are both sticking with narrow band email solutions for now, but I wonder how long it’ll be until we see that change.

So while some airlines will get a nice PR jump now, a year from now it’ll be standard equipment, and only then will this actually be good for the customer. I don’t know anyone who enjoys the guessing game right now. Will my plane have wifi or not? You won’t know until you get onboard, unless you’re flying Virgin America which does tell you in advance. Soon, we won’t have to worry about that. Every plane will have it.

But back to AirTran. I have to say that it’s nice to see an airline not talking about this until they actually had something to show for it. The compressed timeline for installation means their customers are not going to have to suffer with the guessing game as long as they have with other carriers. There is still, however, one problem.

On AirTran’s wifi PR flight this morning, there were a lot of dead batteries. (Remember, I brought this up recently.) Benet Wilson was twittering until her laptop died. (Then she switched to her iPod Touch.) And Ben Mutzabaugh at USA Today saw his battery die as well. He asked AirTran about power outlets, and they said “it’s a priority to address, but concedes it likely won’t happen soon.”

So a year from now, I’m hoping that wifi will be standard and the next race will be for power outlets.

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