An Onboard Wifi Update

AirTran, Alaska Airlines, American, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, Technology, United, US Airways, Virgin America

I’m at the National Business Travel Association (NBTA) conference this week, and I spent awhile chatting with the folks at AirCell (provider of wifi fun) yesterday. That made me think it was a good time for a wifi update, especially since there has been so much news lately.

Delta and American continue to make progress while Southwest has announced it’s outfitting the full fleet. But the fleet coverage numbers that airlines throw out can be misleading, so I thought I’d break it down further.

Let’s start with this chart showing what percent of the fleet currently has wifi installed by airline.

Onboard Wifi as of Aug 09 (including Express)

You’ll notice that these numbers look WAY different from what the airlines tell you. For example, Delta just announced that it was north of 70% but I’m showing 16%. What gives? Well, Delta has it installed on 70% of the pre-merger mainline fleet. In this number, I’ve included the Northwest fleet and the vast fleet of Delta Connection regional jets and props that have no wifi at all. While the regional fleet probably won’t see wifi, the first Northwest aircraft goes in for modification on 10/1.

AirTran and Virgin America remain the only airlines with 100% completion, though it was a lot easier for Virgin America with only 28 planes than it was for AirTran with 136 planes. Oh, and remember, Virgin America has power outlets so they already have a leg up.

American has just passed 100 MD-80s with the system along with the 15 767-200s flying across the country. talking to AirCell today, I was told that they’re doing 1 or 2 a day, so they keep marching quickly. They will have 150 MD-80s, and I believe that’s the only plan so far.

Alaska is still just in test mode, but they have indicated that they want to go fleetwide eventually.

Southwest is also still in test mode, but they just announced that they would be rolling this out fleetwide beginning in 2010. There is no timeline for completion, but hopefully they can install this quicker than they can paint airplanes in their new colors.

Continental and JetBlue are in the same boat. They are both tied to the LiveTV inflight entertainment system, and that can include narrow-band access for free onboard. That means you can check email, use IM, and visit a couple websites but that’s about it. JetBlue still only has it on one airplane but they’ll begin rolling it out soon throughout the fleet. I know Continental has LiveTV on most of its 737-900s now, but they don’t have wifi of any kind yet.

United had announced that its flights from New York to LA and San Francisco will have internet but that hasn’t happened yet. US Airways will put it on their A321 fleet as well, but that hasn’t begun either.

So if you want wifi, AirTran and Virgin America are your best bet with Delta and American following. Of course, it remains to be seen how many people want wifi and more importantly, are willing to pay for it. I asked AirCell for usage numbers, but of course, they couldn’t provide that. Bummer.

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13 comments on “An Onboard Wifi Update

  1. Funny how the airlines are making everyone pay for things that used to included as part of the ticket and have gone out of their way to get rid of as much weight on the plane as possible to save on fuel.

    But now they add equipment to have wifi and live TV which many people may not use if they have to pay for it. There are a lot of short flights in this country to many may not think it’s worth the price even if a shorter segment has a lower price.

    It’s like the telephones on planes, how many people really used them compared to the fuel/maintance cost to carry them around all the time.

    Is this why the airlines raise the baggage fees so they can cover the cost of all the wifi and TV’s people may not use?

  2. You mention about American and the MD-80’s – what about the few 737’s that they still fly? Will they get WiFi?

  3. ICUDoc wrote:

    You mention about American and the MD-80’s – what about the few 737’s that they still fly? Will they get WiFi?

    They actually fly a lot more than a few – those are the replacements for the MD-80s. According to AirCell, they are still waiting for the approval to install on the 737s from the feds. Delta has one 737 outfitted and once that’s done, American should be able to start as well.

  4. I think we are again comparing apples to oranges (ie legacies to lccs). I think it is absolutely fair to say that VA has completed the roll-out of wifi across their planes faster than anyone. I think it is also fair that they have to do it on 30-ish planes! Now I think the efforts that AA and DL have done in this area are great, but I agree with your inclusion of all the regionals in the % complete.
    The american public wants uniformity in experience and I think that is what is missing in the legacies world. They make it so hard to know what to expect; for example can I pay on cash or can’t I (ie United vs United Express); but I pay United for the ticket.
    If there is one thing to be said for Air Canada at least they get it with a majority of the jazz getting IFE. I know it all comes down to cost and service provided, but I think American should get this, they own (almost) the entire network they fly. They should be able to provide a consistent experience and having different services across the same brand is a customer expectation nightmare.
    Also, United has started the roll-out of wifi, all of 1 airplane is complete.

  5. Well, one must be able to fit the computer between yourself and the seat in front of one, this limits the usability. I lug a Latitude D800 and am 6′-1″ and 240 lbs. The potential of WiFi for me is therefore rather limited.

    Also, the stats may look a little different if you measure the number of seat-hours per year for which WiFi is available versus the total number of seat-hours.

  6. Delta announced yesterday they will be beefing up JFK-LAX/SFO flts but didn’t give a date in the news blurb I saw. UA said they were so DL had to follow suit with their wifi plans.

  7. Aircell and Delta are in litigation for patent infringment. I expect the other airlines will be added as well. Aircell will have problems connecting to cell sights with the present equipment and will need to upgrade equipment to improve its conectivity. I would not purchase from Aircell/Gogo for this reason.

    Southwest will be using Row 44- smart move on there part.

  8. @ David SFeastbay:

    You must realize that the cost of your ticket is cheaper now than anytime in aviation history! We used to get free meals that were delicious and worthy, along with those cheesy stethoscope type head phones, but we used to pay $498 to fly 500 miles, my last flight on Airtran was $60 for 1200 miles. At that price point difference, I’ll buy my wifi, thank you very much!

  9. @ Tony:

    What will happen in five years when all those satellites that are still working are 1/10 the speed of Aircell’s ground based network? Southwest will be looking foolish then!

  10. Satellite connection on a mobile application has always been better than ground based systems. These systems are also used on boats, cars, RVs, homes and planes. Do you really think this industry would let itself become obsolete?

    Aircell only services one type of customer, because it only points its signal up from its towers. The equipment it is presently installing is already obsolete and costs more than $100k for each installation. Plus the cost to setup and maintain hundreds of ground based locations.

    Less than 10% of pasengers will use it and the airlines get a chunk of that business. Most laptops only get about one hour of use with Wi-Fi on so, why pay for more time than that? Many people will soon realize having to pay more than an hour on Gogo is foolish. In addition Aircell has patent issues to contend with. I would not put my money on this service lasting five years.

  11. I don’t understand how “we” are putting money on a service – we are buying a service for a few hours – we are not making an investment. If the airlines bet wrong – they will pay a price – if they bet wrong – they will lose – but, in the meantime, we have access at least part of the time to Wi-Fi in the air – and that is GOOD!!!

    1. The list is quite different now. Delta is probably about halfway when you look at the whole fleet, including regional jets. Alaska may be halfway as well while US Airways has a small percent. Southwest and United have tiny amounts.

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