Web surfing in the sky is poised to take off again. Nearly two years after Boeing pulled the plug on the airline industry's first attempt...
Web surfing in the sky is poised to take off again.
Nearly two years after Boeing pulled the plug on the airline industry’s first attempt at connecting passengers to the Internet, airlines are trying once again to offer the ability to browse Web sites and e-mail during flights.
Several airlines are planning to conduct tests of a new generation of wireless Internet equipment this summer despite facing fuel-induced financial woes, saying the fee-based service could provide much-needed extra revenues.
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The latest efforts would bring back Web surfing on airplanes, which continue to be one of the few places where the Internet has been kept at bay.
“We are full speed ahead,” said Steve Jarvis, vice president of marketing and customer-service experience for Alaska Airlines, which hopes to begin offering the service to its passengers this fall.
The fee for a wireless Internet connection is likely to be no more than $10 depending on the length of the flight, Jarvis said. Passengers would need a laptop with wireless capability to access the Internet during flight.
American Airlines, the largest U.S. carrier, has been testing a system made by Aircell that provides an Internet connection through ground-based cellular towers, and is hoping to start letting some passengers test the service this summer.
Southwest Airlines is looking at a system that uses satellites to connect to the Internet, and in-flight entertainment equipment makers such as Panasonic Avionics and Thales Avionics have been pitching similar satellite-based systems to several airlines.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest,” said Chuck Albright, a product marketing manager for Panasonic Avionics, a subsidiary of the giant Japanese electronics maker. “We’re hearing from the marketplace that it may be the time.”
The Internet systems in the works won’t include the ability to use cellphones, which are banned during flight because of concerns that cellular signals could interfere with the plane’s electronic equipment. In addition, airlines would still have to decide whether to allow Internet-based telephone and videoconferencing.
Amy Cravens, contributing analyst for Internet research firm MultiMedia Intelligence, said several factors were helping revive airline interest in equipping planes with online capabilities.
Since Boeing terminated its Connexion Internet system in late 2006, several companies have been quietly developing a new generation of equipment that is significantly cheaper and lighter.
At the same time, wireless Internet use, particularly using handheld devices such as BlackBerrys, has proliferated, and business and leisure travelers expect online access wherever they go.
“They were ahead of the time,” Cravens said of Boeing’s satellite-based Internet system. “They came up with a very robust system, but it was too expensive and there wasn’t the demand.”
After sinking more than $1 billion into development, Boeing found few passengers were willing to pay the $30 connection fee. After several international carriers began offering the service on a handful of long-haul flights, Boeing pulled the plug on the program in late 2006, saying the business didn’t appear to be financially viable.
Boeing’s system, which included a 6-foot, surfboardlike antenna attached to the top of the plane’s fuselage, was estimated to weigh about 1,000 pounds. The weight of the new equipment, including the antenna and the wireless modem, has dropped to no more than 150 pounds.
The antennae for American’s Internet system are about the size of a large coffee cup.
In addition to American, Richard Branson’s new Virgin America airline is looking at installing Aircell’s equipment on its planes.
Alaska is working to offer a service that relies on satellites that beam signals to an airplane’s antenna to provide a connection for passengers with wireless-enabled laptops or BlackBerrys.
Because of the latest advances in microchips and other technology, the equipment would also cost significantly less — as little as $200,000 compared with about $500,000 for Connexion.
It also takes only a day or two to install the new equipment on planes, compared with a week or more for the Connexion system.
Providing Internet service to passengers could become a “revenue generator rather than an expense, which is appealing to airlines struggling with high fuel costs,” Cravens said.
In a recent research report on in-flight Internet, Cravens estimated that revenues from the Internet service could jump to more than $1 billion annually for the airlines by 2012. But the growth could be dampened if fuel costs continue to rise and airlines cut back on services.
So far, few passengers are expected to balk at Internet fees, considering that they’re already paying for basic services that were long included in airfare such as beverages and meals.
“There is a broad effort in the airline industry to create ancillary revenue, particularly in light of record fuel prices,” Cravens said.
“This is being accomplished by turning the airline cabin into a ‘flying merchandise mart,’ which is in effect changing passenger perception and willingness to purchase additional products in flight.”
Frequent air traveler Jason Womack, an Ojai, Calif.-based management consultant, isn’t sure having Internet access during a flight will be all that useful.
“A flight can be such a valuable place to catch up on work that the addition of the Internet would be a great place to watch podcasts and catch up on e-mails,” he said.
“But it has definite downsides. Can you imagine sitting next to the guy who decides to spend a cross-country flight doing a video conference?”