No WiFi in the Sky
After years of deals, tests, business bungles, and hype, in-flight internet access has yet to take off.
The long and winding road to in-flight internet service led to a dead end at London's Heathrow Airport back in February 2003. About a month after Lufthansa first tested Boeing's satellite-based internet technology, Boeing herded a gaggle of media types onto a similarly equipped British Airways transatlantic flight.
Stan Deal, charged with selling Boeing's Connexion internet service to airlines and travelers, was ecstatic. The test went swimmingly, and everyone on board had surfed the Web without a glitch. When we landed, however, there was a shortage of Boeing-supplied limos. Deal made a beeline for the taxis, but I suggested the Heathrow Express train, which would get us into London in just 20 minutes. Deal would have none of it.
As we crawled through the morning traffic for two hours, I hammered Deal over pricing. Boeing's plan to charge passengers $30 a flight for internet access was insane, especially in the introductory phase. "We pay eight grand to fly business class from New York, and B.A. will pour me as much $50-a-bottle Champagne as I can drink. But if I want to use the internet, I gotta pay $30?" I said, with what I thought was undeniable logic. "You can't nickel-and-dime high-yield customers like that."
Deal would have none of that, either. Boeing launched Connexion in the summer of 2004 at $30 a pop. Lufthansa and a dozen other international carriers-although not B.A. or any U.S. airline-installed it. But passengers refused to pay. Connexion died, largely unmourned, on December 31, 2006. Airlines that shelled out about $500,000 a plane were left in the lurch, and Boeing lost an estimated $300 million. The only bright spot: When Boeing gave away internet access in Connexion's final months, passenger usage skyrocketed.
Almost two years later, we're still essentially nowhere with in-flight access, which is shaping up as the final, possibly unconquerable, internet frontier.
Lufthansa, Connexion's biggest booster, continues to search for a replacement system for its overseas flights. But as Connexion proved, satellite internet is costly to install and expensive to operate, and access speeds are pokey. A European system called OnAir, sponsored by Boeing's largest competitor, Airbus, also seems stalled. And Aircell, a much-publicized service that promises to offer domestic in-flight internet using a cheap, fast air-to-ground system, is months behind schedule.
You've surely heard of Aircell. With great fanfare and compliant mainstream media coverage, it has announced deals to wire aircraft operated by American, Delta, and Virgin America airlines. It has a brand name for its internet service, Gogo Inflight. It has a pricing structure: $9.95 to $12.95 a flight.
Aircell has everything but service. Earlier this year, American Airlines wired 15 of its Boeing 767s, but the internet access has yet to be turned on for commercial use. It's barely been tested. According to American, Gogo was used in June on two "dress rehearsal" flights and tested on two additional flights last week. Yet the airline won't publicly commit to a date when it will finally begin what it describes as a "three- to six-month trial to customers."
"This thing should have been working months ago," one frustrated American executive told me last week. "Obviously, there's something wrong."
Why the delay? Aircell isn't talking and refused repeated requests for an interview. Instead, its public-relations agency referred me back to its press releases, most of which said Aircell would be operating by now.
(August 20 update: American Airlines finally announced the Internet trial would start today. American claims passengers can now buy Internet service on its 767s, which fly between New York and three cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami.)
Aircell's deals with Delta and Virgin America are also less than meets the eye.
Earlier this month, Aircell and Delta claimed the airline's entire fleet of 330 domestic aircraft would be wired by next summer. Delta even told some reporters that it would have 75 planes equipped by the end of the year. But that rollout schedule seems overly aggressive. The Federal Aviation Administration, which must issue a certificate for each type of aircraft that Aircell wants to wire, says the company's application for the MD-80 series planes that Delta uses has just been submitted. The spokesperson I talked to said Aircell's application wouldn't even be addressed "until the fall."
Aircell and Virgin America announced their deal almost a year ago, just weeks after Virgin America launched service in August 2007. But the F.A.A. says Aircell hasn't applied for a certificate to install its equipment on Virgin America's Airbus aircraft.
In fairness, Aircell isn't the only in-flight internet service that, well, isn't. A company called Row 44 has deals with Southwest and Alaska airlines. Like Connexion before it, Row 44 says it will use a satellite system. But when Alaska announced its plans last September, it promised tests by the spring. In January, when Southwest announced its plans, testing was supposed to begin on four aircraft this summer. Neither has materialized.
Late last year, JetBlue wired a single plane with a proprietary system that can accommodate limited in-flight emailing and instant messaging. But the program is still being tested, JetBlue told me last week, and no decision has been made about its future.
What's keeping in-flight internet from becoming a reality? I wish I knew; nobody I've spoken to knows or is willing to say. I'm beginning to blame myself. If I'd just been more persuasive in that taxi five years ago, Connexion might still be around, and you could have been reading this from the sky.
The Fine Print.
The Transportation Security Administration says travelers toting laptops with "checkpoint friendly" bags won't be required to remove their computers at the security checkpoints. But the bags, which are just coming to market, are fraught with compromises: They must have a laptop-only section; nothing except the laptop can be placed in the special compartment; the bag must be opened to expose the laptop; and the T.S.A. reserves the right to demand the laptops be taken out of the case.
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