Talking about Wifi Onboard a Grumman Albatross

As I mentioned in my post last night, I was able to take a ride on a beautiful Grumman Albatross owned by Row 44, the company that is just beginning to ramp up its satellite-based wifi service. What was even more incredible is that I sat in the bubble nose for departure and took some amazing video (see below).Gary Kelly and Larry Kellner. But it wasn’t all just fun – there was plenty of talk about onboard wifi choices as well. It proved to be a very interesting discussion.

Earlier in the day, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly and Continental CEO (for now) Larry Kellner were on an airline CEO panel at NBTA (at left). I also had the chance to speak with Gary later on. Both times, the topic of wifi came up. I wondered why Southwest had chosen the satellite-based system from Row 44 when their flights could all have been handled by AirCell’s ground-based network in the US.

The reason that really struck me was that Southwest has more control with Row 44. See, AirCell brands their service as GoGo and they set the pricing and keep the branding their own. With Row 44, Southwest Our Grumman Albatrosskeeps the branding and they get to set pricing and determine how revenues will work. Everything I’ve heard is that Row 44 is more costly, but it appears that Southwest finds that worthwhile because of the extra control they have.

At the end of the day, I stopped at the Southwest booth when someone recognized me from my Halloween judging in Dallas. Next thing I know, I’m being invited to go for a ride with Row 44 on N44HQ, a Grumman Albatross built in 1951 and previously used for search and rescue as well as astronaut training. Done deal.

Even though it was a seaplane, we were flying from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field thanks to problems with getting permission from the locals to operate on water. The Grumman PortholeThat was too bad, but we still had an incredible time.

The nosecone isn’t a nosecone at all but rather a clear bubble for surveillance from the airplane’s previous life. As we hopped on board, I grabbed a seat until being told that I could ride up front. I snuck in underneath the pilot’s seat and found myself laying on an old blanket with my head on a pillow in the nose. Yes, I stayed there for takeoff and took this video.

When we came back to earth, the sun was setting and I had a chance to talk with Row 44 CEO John Guidon. He echoed much of what I already discussed with Gary Kelly, but he also threw out some figures. He said that on average, about a third of people onboard have wifi-enabled devices with them. When the service is free, he said that most people just log right on. But when a fee is added (any fee, no matter how small), only about a quarter to a third of people with devices log on for longer flights. That’s only about 8 to 11% take rate.

This is why John hopes to see an ad-supported model in the long run where passengers don’t need to pay. I asked about the expensive cost of bandwidth, but he seemed confident that ads could still pay for this. Of course, that will be the airline’s decision as long as they go with Row 44.

Personally, I have to wonder about the financial viability of all this. There’s a lot of money going into this effort, and I have to wonder where these wifi companies are getting all this cash. If it’s debt, then it’s going to be tough to pay it all off. But ultimately it doesn’t matter for the customer. If a company goes bust, someone will buy the remains and get the thing started again.

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