January 25, 2008 12:54 PM PST

In-flight Internet: Grounded for life?

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But air-to-ground systems won't leave such passengers Internet-less, said Jack Blumenstein, CEO of AirCell, the company providing service to American and Virgin America.

In fact, he said that AirCell worked with American to ensure that even planes flying 200 or 300 miles offshore would still be able to get a strong enough signal to provide passengers with connectivity.

While Blumenstein recognizes the benefits of satellite service--he said AirCell provides it to corporate jet clients flying internationally--the company decided to focus on an air-to-ground system in the U.S. because the spectrum employed for such service uses a low-cost, off-the-shelf infrastructure.

He also said he feels that satellite technology is hit-and-miss, given the vagaries of trying to shoot a signal at a satellite 25,000 miles away from an aircraft traveling hundreds of miles an hour.

"If airlines price it to be too expensive, they just won't see the take-up rate."

But whatever option the airlines choose, it will take time to get most passengers surfing the Web while flying.

"You have to have either the satellite network in place or the air-to-ground network of cell towers in place," Harteveldt said. "You have to develop the hardware and software, get it certified by both the (U.S.) FCC and FAA, and then you have to sell it."

What's clear, though, according to people like Harteveldt and Campanella, is that the public unquestionably wants Internet connectivity, even if that means removing one of the last places where one can escape from work.

For example, Row 44, which has only two announced commercial airline partners, is funded entirely on the promise of a vibrant onboard Internet market, Campanella said.

"The numbers we've seen," she said, "are that on the order of 80 percent of business travelers (want the service) and better than 50 percent of regular travelers would put Internet as the No. 1 or No. 2 enhancement (they want) for flights."

And for its part, Southwest is hoping that widespread demand and adoption of onboard Internet service will mean steady business for the airline.

"We...hope that the Internet will be expected on airplanes just as it's expected in a hotel or a coffee shop," Southwest's Eichinger said. "We're on the brink of it, and once other carriers get it on their aircraft, we hope it will be something customers come to expect and enjoy."

But one problem that will surely plague the airline industry as it crawls forward with such rollouts is coming up with proper business plans and pricing.

In his report, Harteveldt suggested that airlines should not be afraid to charge for onboard Internet service, even if customers would rather get it for free.

But in an interview, he said that the proper pricing structure is key to maximizing customer adoption.

"A huge factor is going to be the price point," Harteveldt said. "If airlines price it to be too expensive, they just won't see the take-up rate. The lower the price, the more people will use it. If you price it much above $10 for coast to coast, you probably will turn off a lot of people."

That's why he said he was disappointed to see that American plans to charge $12.95 for the service.

"I think they'd see a substantially higher take-up rate if they priced it at $9.95," he said.

But one way or another, what is clear for the first time, is that consumers are nearing the tipping point where in-flight Wi-Fi becomes something that can be counted on. And for the countless business travelers who would no doubt enjoy being able to get online while they fly, it couldn't come too soon.

Harteveldt's only words of wisdom?

"Have faith," he said, "and have patience."

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Can't open a laptop anyway
I think one very important item is being forgotten. With the number of seats packed into airlines for flights in the US you can't comfortably open a conventional laptop with a 14" display...at least in coach.

If you don't mind working with the screen half open and praying the person in front of you doesn't recline it's doable ;)
Posted by bmon2002 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Unfulfilled market
There's an unfulfilled market for an adjustable, non-metallic brace to fit between your armrest and the seat-back in front of you. Set it up when you get settled in your seat before the seatbelt light is turned off and the jerk in front of you won't be able to recline.

Right now I have to just shove my knees into the seatback, which is not difficult considering how the seat pitch has shrunk in the past few years.
Posted by AndrewRich (217 comments )
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Electric Power Would Be Nice
I'd rather see electric power outlets in all Coach seats before WiFi. I'm lucky to get 2 hours on battery, and that's with the screen really dim.
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Absolutely agree, without an outlet to plug in, the wifi is pointless.

Although I would point out another possible barrier to adoption: reimbursement. If my company allows us to claim reimbursement of the wifi fee then I may use it. But if reimbursement is not available then I will not use it on a business flight no matter how cheap it is.
Posted by Constance Reader (5 comments )
Link Flag
Its not needed. There is enough cosmic radiation at high altitudes already, without adding wifi to the mix. Being inside a large metal tube makes the exposure even more dangerous. I would find wifi usefull on flights, but I don't think it is worth the health effects.
Posted by xacimo (1 comment )
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