For an airline that has done a good job of avoiding inflight entertainment like the plague, Southwest sure is diving right in when it comes to wireless internet service. The deal is done and wifi will start rolling out aggressively next quarter.
Don’t get me wrong. They’ve been incredibly slow in actually getting to this point, but from now on, it’s going into overdrive. There are currently four test planes outfitted with wifi, but it’s been that way for about a year now. That’s one long test period.
Southwest has now signed an equipment purchase agreement and that means two things:
1) Wifi provider Row 44 is peeing its pants with joy now that it has a huge paying customer
2) The last hurdle between Southwest and the rollout is gone
Beginning in the second quarter of this year, Southwest will start outfitting a plane every other day. They hope to ramp that up to 25 per month soon after. With around 550 airplanes in the fleet, it’s going to take them about 2 years to get it completely done. When it’s done, however, they’ll be one of the largest wifi providers in the sky.
How much will they charge? They aren’t saying just yet. According to their blog, “We’re still testing a variety of price points on the four aircraft that currently have wi-fi. We’ll have a decision on price in the second quarter of 2010 . . . .”
Fair enough, but I think it’s safe to assume that the Business Select crowd won’t pay a dime while the rest of the herd will have to pay something. We just don’t know what yet. Heck, if they can get enough advertising revenue from a sponsor, maybe they’ll go that way from time to time. The good news is that they have complete and total control of the content, so they can do pretty much whatever they want on that end. That’s why they went with Row 44’s satellite option even though the ground-based option from AirCell would have fit their network just fine.
For Southwest, this is the perfect technology. They’ve long avoided inflight entertainment because it adds cost. Airlines haven’t been able to charge for overhead movies for a long time, and in-seat video is costly. It’s not just the content but also the weight and the extra pieces that can break in each seat. It’s just not a Southwest way of doing things. But wifi is different. It does add a little weight, but it only gets installed in one place so you don’t run the risk of having a problem at every seat.
More importantly, the test they’ve been running apparently shows them that they can make money on this, or at least make it cost neutral. (I have to assume that’s what the test showed.) That means that for the customers, it’s a nice perk that they’re willing to pay for. It also helps business people with productivity (even if they don’t want it, but that’s another story).
This combined with Business Select and Earlybird boarding makes it sound like Southwest is once again trying to The Company Plane for more and more people.