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Delta Makes a Smart Choice for Wifi Internationally

While wireless internet has become nearly ubiquitous on flights within the US (unless you fly United), international travel hasn’t seen the same result. Sure, some foreign airlines have started to install wifi, most notably Lufthansa, but the airlines based in the US have not. That will finally start changing later this year.

American was the first to announce that it would put wifi on international aircraft – it is expected to have its first 777-300ER delivered by the end of this year with wifi. But we don’t know which provider will be used. We also so far know that it will only be on the 777s. Nothing has been said about the airline’s large fleet of 767s and internationally-configured 757s. As of last week, Delta has decided to go much further.

Beginning in early 2013, Delta will begin installing wifi on its entire long haul fleet. This means it will KU vs. MU Border Wargo on the A330s, 777s, 747s, and the 767s and 757s that fly internationally. (The 757s and 767s that fly domestically already have internet.) Once this is done, every airplane in the Delta fleet with more than 50 seats (including Delta Connection) will have wifi. That’s actually quite the feat considering we’re talking about around 1,000 aircraft.

As you may know, Delta currently has internet on domestic flights via Gogo using air-to-ground technology. That means the airplanes have antennas that point down to stations on the ground to get connected. That works on land but it’s not the easiest thing to install ground stations in water. (Any volunteers for anchoring them thousands of feet under sea level?) So, what could Delta do? It looked at several providers and ultimately decided to stick with the same one, Gogo, using Ku band satellite technology.

This is great news for travelers for one reason. Gogo controls the pricing of its internet offering, so if Delta had them for domestic and someone else for international, that would have been a poor customer experience. What if you flew from Chicago to New York and then on to Barcelona? You would have had to sign up for Gogo service on the short flight and then something completely different on the long one. But since Delta is going with Gogo, it will have the ability to sell you a single pass to be good on all flights. The interface will be the same regardless of the hardware being used on the aircraft. And you’ll only need one account. And if Delta ends up using GogoVision to stream movies, you’d be able to watch them on both flights.

Now, about that hardware. Since air-to-ground clearly doesn’t work for this, Gogo had to go and choose something else. Delta has signed up for Ku band satellite coverage. If you’d ever used internet on Southwest, that’s what you get. It’s a perfectly capable system that doesn’t rely on the ground below. Ka band is supposed to be faster and cheaper, but it’s not really ready yet and Delta wanted to get moving. If down the line, Delta decided to make a change, I suppose it could theoretically do that fairly easily. But it’s also not entirely clear that there will be enough benefit to do so. That’s a topic for a future post.

So, Delta wants Ku band and it wants to get things done quickly. Now let’s just see if they can stick to the schedule. Gogo hasn’t installed Ku band systems yet, so it has some hoops to jump through before this will be up and running. Early 2013 is a nice goal to have – hopefully they can actually meet it. The fleet won’t be done until 2015. That’s annoying that it will take so long, but installing these satellite antennas takes more time than the air-to-ground ones, so it’s harder to schedule time to pull airplanes out of service.

So it’s going to take some time, but at least the install process starts in six months. Hopefully they’ll find a way to expedite this, because 2015 seems awfully far away.
Regardless, this is a good move by Delta. It’s creating a very consistent offering across its fleet and that’s important. It will be interesting to see if American does something similarly friendly or not. For that matter, it’ll be interesting to see if United ever gets off its butt and does anything.

[Original photo via Flickr user David Reber’s Hammer Photography/CC 2.0]

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