When he was involved in marketing, it never occurred to Jack Salerno to fire up his computer during a flight, link to the Internet and dig into work. “I liked the quiet time to think,” he said.
A career switch to sales in health care heightened his appreciation of Wi-Fi access on planes. With quarterly sales figures for his employer lagging, Salerno spent two consecutive days at the end of March enduring round trips to Dallas and Phoenix from his base in Boston to drum up deals.
“I couldn’t afford to have 15 hours of flight time when I would be dark,” Salerno said last week in the main atrium of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
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Count Salerno among a growing band of business travelers who welcome the option to remain on the clock while above the clouds. And with the recent announcement that the telecommunications behemoth AT&T would compete for contracts with airlines to provide Wi-Fi service on domestic flights, the skies are about to become a lot more connected.
“When a major corporation like this gets into the market, it’s a sign the market has matured,” said Michael Planey, a consultant in Alexandria, Va., whose specialties include in-flight entertainment.
The dominant company in the domestic field, Gogo Inflight Internet, has generated a mix of plaudits and catcalls.
“To me, it’s a godsend even though it doesn’t work as well as I’d like it to,” said Chris McGinnis, a San Francisco-based aviation consultant and blogger. “It’s made my business travel time much more productive.”
He added, “I’m willing to give them a break for giving me something I never, ever thought I’d have.”
Still, “People have been frustrated by relatively poor performance compared to what they get on the ground,” said Tim Farrar, a technology consultant in Menlo Park, Calif., whose clients include satellite operators. He was quick to absolve Gogo of blame, citing the company’s limited bandwidth, which can bog down Wi-Fi connections.
Antennas on the planes transmit signals primarily to cellphone towers on the ground during domestic flights; they receive their signals from satellites, too.
Gogo, which provides its service on some of Delta Air Lines’ international flights, is expanding its bandwidth and, having relied mainly on the ground antennas since its introduction in 2008, is gaining satellite commitments, according to a company spokesman, Steve Nolan. Any upgrade would be welcomed by regular users.
“It’s very hit and miss,” said Seth Miller, a New York aviation analyst and blogger. “There are days when it works great and days when it’s frustratingly slow and people want to hate it.”
For some, price is a deterrent to signing up for the service. Fees vary, based on the airlines and length of flights, up to $29.95 for a day pass with Gogo, which has exclusive deals with numerous airlines beside Delta, including American and Virgin America.
Factoring in other carriers, Gogo accounts for about 80 percent of the estimated 2,700 domestic commercial aircraft that offer Wi-Fi, Nolan said. Nearly half of all domestic flights, including regional carriers, offer Wi-Fi, Farrar said. If regional carriers are excluded, that number rises to more than two-thirds, he said.
Three other companies — Row 44, Panasonic Avionics and Thales Avionics (which recently acquired LiveTV, a provider of in-flight entertainment) — have carved out smaller niches.
One Wi-Fi problem, analysts point out, is that higher usage on a given flight slows Internet speed. Making the service more affordable might lure additional customers initially but can cause dissatisfaction with spotty connectivity. Problems are more acute on time-consuming transcontinental flights, when fliers are more inclined to tend to work chores.
On flights equipped with Wi-Fi, only 6 percent or so of passengers purchase the service, a lower rate than Gogo and various industry analysts first projected.
That rate stands to climb with Gogo’s enhancements and the entry of AT&T, which could come late next year, though Gogo’s exclusive contracts with airlines do not begin to expire until 2018. Consultants and analysts speculate that AT&T will offer irresistible pricing. Some envision AT&T extending free Internet service or email access for brief periods on some flights.
“AT&T is going for the jugular with Gogo,” said Mary Kirby, editor of an aviation news website out of Lancaster, Pa. “They are a huge competitive threat.” She added, “Like airline passengers, airline management has been pretty peeved about the service” offered so far.
Kirby expects AT&T — and possibly other rivals — to be popular once they are available.
“People want to clear some workload in-flight and maybe relax a little” after landing, she said. Wi-Fi “is allowing true business travelers to clear that work.”
Fliers overwhelmingly opposed the use of cellphones in-flight, but now accept the tap-tap on keyboards that used to annoy them, said Shane Downey, director of public policy for the Global Business Travel Association. “I don’t think we are wired that way anymore,” he said.