Delta announced yesterday that it would be making big investments in improving its wifi speed and coverage. This, of course, is good news. But it’s also a very interesting indicator of how important wifi is becoming. This isn’t just an investment in adding wifi. It’s an investment in replacing older systems.
Delta was one of the first to opt for fleetwide wifi years ago. It chose Gogo’s air-to-ground system, probably because it got a great deal on it. Gogo was eager to get airlines onboard, but the air-to-ground system is cheaper and faster to install as well. With usage numbers relatively low, this seemed like the easiest and most painless way to check the “wifi” box on the list of things to do.
The air-to-ground system isn’t really all that robust in terms of bandwidth so as more airplanes got the system and more people started using it, speeds slowed down. Gogo came up with increasingly creative solutions including ATG-4 and eventually a hybrid (GTO) with partial satellite connectivity. That helped with capacity but there was always one nagging issue. When you rely on ground stations, you can’t get coverage over the water.
For domestic airplanes, that wasn’t a huge issue… if they didn’t go to Hawai’i. Or if they didn’t fly routes over the water (lots of places to Florida from the north and west). And of course, many of these airplanes weren’t confined to domestic flights anyway. They’d go on other missions to the Caribbean or Latin America where the wifi was unusable.
This wasn’t originally a huge issue, because hey, it was something. But then other airlines starting leapfrogging. United benefited from being a complete and total slacker. By the time it decided to go with wifi, it opted for a satellite system. The rollout has been slow though. If you’re on an A319, A320, 737-900, or 747, you’ll get it. Otherwise it’s a bit of a crapshoot.
JetBlue, also a slacker, has been talking about how fast and incredible its satellite system is. All its A321s have it and 70 percent of the A320s do. The Embraers? None. But it will get there.
Of course, these were all initial installs. They evaluated what was in the market at the time they decided to move forward and chose what they felt was best. While we have seen some airlines like Virgin America opt for upgraded systems, I don’t recall seeing anyone do what Delta is doing. It’s going to strip the antennas of 250+ airplanes and put a new system onboard.
Delta is still going to be using Gogo as its provider, but it’s going to ditch the air-to-ground system and instead start using satellites on its narrowbodies that fly overwater and on longer haul flights. Gogo’s 2Ku system is supposed to get 70 Mbps to the airplane (and will eventually get up to 100 MBps). Compare that to Gogo’s original system which brought in a paltry 3.1 Mbps and it’s a huge difference. (It’s also faster then the Ku system Delta will have finished putting on its widebodies by next summer, though that’s still light years ahead of Gogo’s original air-to-ground system.)
The fleets that are getting the upgrade? Well, it’s all the 757s (-200s and -300s), 737-800s and -900s, and A319s. Why those airplanes? Well, the 757s fly longer haul domestic including Hawai’i routes. The 737s and A319s do longer haul domestic but also go into the Caribbean and Latin America a lot. Those are all areas that don’t have coverage today. This will start in 2016 and probably take a couple years to complete.
Delta also got a bit mysterious when talking about its MD-80, MD-90, and 717 fleets. It says it will keep the air-to-ground system on those, but it will be “upgraded with Gogo’s next generation air-to-ground technology as it becomes available.” That will take a few years, but hey, I guess that means those fleets will be around for awhile.
You may have noticed a couple of fleets missing. There’s no mention of the sad A320 fleet. That one isn’t getting the same bells and whistles as the A319 (which, remember, is also getting inflight entertainment), and it’s expected to fly shorter routes. According to Delta, no decision has been made on what to do with that fleet in terms of wifi, but to me it sounds like its days are numbered. Only 8 of the aircraft are less than 15 years old, so maybe it will start riding into the sunset. Or maybe I’m reading too much into things.
The other fleet not mentioned is the small 10 aircraft 737-700 fleet. Those were picked up for specific longer routes, but I’m guessing Delta would be happy to see them gone. The regionals are not impacted by this announcement, but that doesn’t mean things won’t change in the future with those.
Forget about the things that aren’t changing, though. The fact that so many of these airplanes are getting big upgrades is a big deal. And it’s good news for travelers.