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American May Replace Gogo for Faster, Cheaper Inflight WiFi

Tired of slow, expensive inflight WiFi? So is American, and it’s suing Gogo, the industry’s largest supplier of inflight WiFi, demanding that Gogo either up its game or allow American to switch providers for 200 of its planes.

The Gogo service on the aircraft in question uses the old air-to-ground technology, which has been superseded by newer satellite-based systems that offer faster, more reliable download speeds. American’s contract with Gogo allows the airline to switch providers if a competing service can deliver superior service. And according to the suit, “Whereas Gogo’s system provides 3 Mbps (or at most, 10 Mbps) of bandwidth shared among all users on a flight, and blocks most video content, these new satellite-based services offer 12 Mbps per device – more than enough for passengers to stream music, movies, and television.” (A copy of the filing, American Airlines Inc. v. Gogo LLC, is posted on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram website.)

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While it has a number of alternative WiFi vendors to choose from in the event Gogo doesn’t respond with a more competitive service offering, American seems particularly taken with ViaSat and Global Eagle. Both offer faster WiFi; and they charge the airlines directly for their services, allowing the companies to set consumer prices. In the end, American stands to pay less, for better service.

The take-away from this arcane legal infighting is just how important inflight WiFi has become to airlines’ overall value propositions. In fact, much of American’s nine-page filing is given over to a history of onboard WiFi, its use by travelers, and its place in the competitive landscape. An excerpt:

(C)ustomers increasingly demand an in-flight WiFi experience with speeds and reliability comparable to what they get at home. A recent survey by Honeywell revealed that in-flight WiFi availability is crucial to airline customers, affecting the flight-selection decisions of 66% of passengers. The survey found that nearly one in five customers have switched from a preferred airline to another carrier because of better WiFi offerings. And a study by the Airline Passenger Experience Association found that improved in-flight passenger connectivity is second only to upgraded seating in terms of most desired improvements by airline customers. As digital data usage has soared in recent years, customers are demanding a quality broadband experience in the sky.

Gogo and American may or may not resolve their differences amicably. Either way, American customers can look forward to faster, and possibly cheaper inflight Internet access.

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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