AirTran Secretly Starts Deploying WiFi Fleetwide

AirTran, Inflight Entertainment

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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18 comments on “AirTran Secretly Starts Deploying WiFi Fleetwide

  1. You would think if an airline was going to set up wifi they would set up power outlets at the same time. Get it all done at once and give the traveler what they want. It’s like the airlines never look past step 1, if they did they would see it makes sense to do step 2 at the same time.

    Maybe it’s a $$$$ issue, and if it is then power outlets should be step 1. I’m sure the traveler would rather have a power outlet first and wifi second if they can’t have it all at once.

  2. Kudos to Air Tran for getting the jump on the “largest airline in the world.” I do see wi-fi as being standard across all airlines in the near future. That said, I’d still rather have individual AVOD entertainment, which might still keep me on the Delta side if I knew the equipment was a 737. Nothing worse than booking a Delta (or American) flight and getting on the dreaded MD-88.

  3. I’m sure the airlines are looking pretty closely at putting in power ports, but whereas they can wifi a plane with installs in one or two spots, powering a whole plane is a much bigger endeavor.

    I expect airlines will start putting it in, but they’ll probably cycle it through as they do the C checks on the planes.

  4. A – At least an MD-88 on Delta now has wifi onboard, unlike on American at this point. But also, remember that while AirTran doesn’t have screens, they do have XM radio at every seat. I find that to be a pretty underrated feature.

  5. But the AA MD80 has seat power so can you charge your laptop/cellphone/mp3 player/whatever while you travel! With power at your seat don’t you have the best compromise – at least today? Watch a DVD on your laptop, listen to music, etc. And really, once the novelty wears off, who is going to spend $10 for internet connection that is good for only a couple hours at most. Sure I’ll do it once or twice a year to download something important on the way to a meeting, Maybe on a transcon flight I’d replicate e-mail, but then I probably wouldn’t be on an MD 80 would I? Most of the time I’d rather enjoy a break from the rat race and read a book.

  6. Million Miler – I’m guessing there will be a wide range of opinions on this one. For many, yes, the simple power outlet is all they’ll want. For others, wifi alone will be great, especially if they use a mobile device with longer-lasting batteries like an iPhone. But every airline has to figure out what’s the right mix. JetBlue, for example, doesn’t think it needs full internet nor power outlets. American, on the other hand, thinks it needs both.

  7. What I’ve found interesting is Southwest’s approach. They don’t seem too big on in-seat power right now but yet their new boarding areas make charging at the gate much easier.

  8. I enjoy reading elsewhere where people are complaining about this. Such phrases as “Now I can’t even escape the office in the air”…Well that nice for them, so some of us don’t like to be disconnected, and on longer flights it provides better entertainment that the movie choices.

    If I were not a commited Delta flier (Gold Medallion), this would certanly be something to consider when choosing a carrier. Kudos to Airtran

  9. I was there with Brett and Benet before we went through security to board the plane and it was just as hard trying to find an outlet at BWI almost anywhere. The whole travel infrastructure needs some powerlet upgrades. Benet did suggest bringing a powerbar when one travels, so even if you find one and it is taken, you can barter to share!

    Either way, I rather have 1-3hrs of wifi on a plane than 0…wonder if one can just pay $9.95 for the 3hrs, even if the flight is over 3hrs b/c the battery won’t last that long.

  10. – Hmm, I wasn’t at BWI for the flight today, so I’m guessing you were with another Brett?

    As far as I know, the current pricing structure if based on the length of the flight and not how long you want to use it, but I could be wrong on that one. I do know that Delta is rolling out a monthly plan for those power users who want to pay a flat rate for the full month. I’ll be very interested to see how they price that.

  11. Yea oops. I meant Ben. I was hoping to meet you today…

    Both AirTran and AirCell confirmed they want to get a daily and some monthly based fee. With both of those people would be able to transfer from airline to airline with their same account. As of now the payment only works for that flight.

  12. – Ah yes, Ben Mutzabaugh from USA Today. He’s a good guy. I wasn’t invited to the shindig today, but maybe we’ll meet at another one sometime.

  13. A few months ago I flew out to CA on Virgin America and back on JetBlue. I realized on that flight the distinct and incredible advantage VA has over B6 with the laptop power outlets and the wifi. I wrote an e-mail to B6 saying that while I understood their going with narrowband, I felt that soon they would need to expand that. However, I really their their lack of in-seat power is the issue. The TVs are terrific, but if I want to get work done or watch a Netflix movie, I need juice.

  14. I’m surprised to see AirTran setting the bar for some of the legacy airlines with WiFi. I would have thought SWA would have had WiFi before AT did! Kudos for AT.


    I just got home from flying Airtran. This is pathetic:

    Flying from Orlando back home to Chicago on 6/13. The woman at customer service said my bag was 62 1/2′; the limit was 62 inches. She said I was going to have to pay another $40 to check this bag. You see, the front pocktes (which were empty, so were holding air) were sticking out. She acknowledged this.

    Note: This is the SAME bag I flew to Orlando with on Airtran; no issues at all.

    She gave me the option of ‘going to the store around the corner to buy tape to tape it down’.

    She said this WITH A STRAIGHT FACE WITH A ROLL OF TAPE NEXT TO HER COMPUTER! I asked her if I could use that tape, she said ‘No’. I went to the store around the corner – and NO TAPE.

    I asked to talk to the Manager. I told the Manager that this was the same bag I brought on Air Tran on the way to Orlando. She said ‘did they measure it?’. I replied ‘I do not know, but I know it weighs less now’. She snipped back ‘Thats not what I asked you. I asked you DID THEY MEASURE IT?’

    By this time I was close to missing my flight so I had to pay $40 for 1/2 inch of a pocket holding air.

    Congratulations Airtran! You made $40 and lost a customer for life.

  16. Matt — sounds like you should contact AirTran customer service. Sometimes indv people can cause you to have a bad experience.

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