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In-flight Internet Coming to an Intercontinental Flight Near You

Since my earlier report last month, lots of big airlines have grabbed onto the in-flight-Internet trend. Because most of the newcomers are heavily involved with intercontinental travel, they’re installing satellite rather than ground-based systems. Within the next year or so, you’ll be able to connect to the Internet on a blue ribbon list of major intercontinental players, and woe to those competitors that lag.

As I noted in my earlier report, nine North American lines are in various stages of completing installation of the Gogo system for domestic travel: Air Canada, AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, United, US Airways, and Virgin America. Gogo, which relies on ground-based transmitter/receiver stations, seems to be robust and probably offers good Wi-Fi performance at the lowest cost. But because it’s ground-based, it can’t connect over the oceans. As far as I know, Gogo is the only ground-based system active in the marketplace, and I’d be surprised if anyone else tries to displace it in North America. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}The only way to get Internet access over extended water bodies is via satellite, and a handful of satellite operators have already cut deals with many of the world’s top airlines:

  • JetBlue just signed up with ViaSat for its entire fleet, with service starting in 2012. Probably, JetBlue wants to be able to offer Internet connection on its increasing number of overwater flights in the Caribbean area.
  • Southwest has started to outfit its planes with the Row44 system. It remains to be seen how Southwest will rationalize its 737 fleet with the Gogo-equipped AirTran fleet after the acquisition.
  • So far, the most widely accepted satellite system is OnAir, boasting a customer list that includes Air Asia, British Airways, Egypt Air, Emirates, Oman Air, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, Singapore, TAP Portugal, and Wataniya. Some are already operating, on some planes; others will be installed over the next two years.
  • Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa have signed up for Panasonic’s Exconnect system, and Qatar Airways opted for the TopSeries system from Thales.

So far, none of the major intercontinental lines has announced satellite Internet pricing for flights to/from the United States. As I noted in the earlier report, you can buy Gogo access through a variety of “passes,” ranging from $4.95 for a single short flight to$34.95 a month for unlimited access on all participating airlines. Presumably, transoceanic satellite service will be priced near these levels or higher. Also, some airlines will likely offer satellite Wi-Fi “free” to travelers in premium cabins, travelers on premium tickets, and top-level frequent flyers.

Noticeably absent from the list of satellite adopters are any big domestic U.S. airlines for their overseas services. Although the jury is still out on how many travelers will use satellite Internet, my guess is that it will become quite popular, and that lack of overwater service will be still another competitive difficulty for U.S. lines that already suffer from chronic low-satisfaction ratings.

Another complication: So far, none of the big three alliances seems to have standardized on one system. Within Star Alliance, for example, Singapore is with OnAir while Lufthansa has gone with Exconnect. Incompatibilities like this among alliance members could become vexatious if travelers have to buy into the various systems separately. Presumably, these lines will work out the details.

Regardless of technology or supplier, I’m pretty sure that, this time, in-flight Internet will catch on in a big way. The ability to do online searches, business, entertainment, email, and all those other Internet tasks while you’re stuck on an airplane would seem to be extremely attractive to a large number of travelers. If you like the idea of spending some of those boring flight hours online, you’ll probably have lots of choices, starting next year.

Your Turn

Would you pay for Internet on intercontinental flights? Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below!

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