Alaska becomes latest airline with Wi-Fi

Alaska Airlines is the latest carrier to launch in-flight Wi-Fi, offering passengers on a specially equipped Boeing 737 a service that uses satellites instead of cellular towers to connect the plane to the Internet.

The service was to begin a 60-day trial run on Thursday with a flight between Seattle and San Jose, California, the airline said. Wi-Fi will be free on board at the beginning of the trial, and the airline plans to use customer feedback to determine future pricing. At the end of the test, Alaska will determine its schedule for rolling out the service across its fleet. The airline serves more than 90 cities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Most major U.S. airlines are either testing in-flight Wi-Fi or offering it commercially on some planes. Most have chosen Aircell’s Gogo system, which links the onboard Wi-Fi network to the Internet over specialized EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) towers on the ground. Alaska, which routes many of its flights over water and wilderness, is using a satellite-based system from Row 44.

Like other airlines, Alaska won’t let passengers talk over VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) while in flight. They are invited to surf the Web, send and receive e-mail and instant messages, access games and multimedia content and use corporate VPNs (virtual private networks). Users can access the network with any Wi-Fi device, including phones and portable media players. They will get an opening Web page with news, music, shopping and links to services on the airline’s homepage.

Row 44’s system, which uses leased satellite transponders with coverage across North America, delivers about 4MB bps (bits per second) to the plane from the satellite and at least 256K bps from the plane. That is shared among all users of the Wi-Fi service, although not all users are likely to be sending or receiving data at all times.

Alaska and Southwest Airlines, both Row 44 customers, had said they would begin trials last year, but both formally announced their test launches this month. The deployments were held up by typical logistical and development delays, as well as delays caused by the holiday travel season, said Wendy Campanella, Row 44’s director of business development. The service is operating on a temporary license from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission but is in the final stages of getting a permanent license, she said.

The current wave of in-flight Wi-Fi rollouts, announced over the past two years, are taking shape amid tough times for the airline industry as businesses and consumers cut back on spending. The cost of the deployments needs to be balanced by enough passengers buying an added-cost service, said analyst Jack Gold of J.Gold Associates.

“Those formulas may not be looking as good as they did six months ago,” Gold said. In most cases, in-flight Wi-Fi costs about $10 or more per flight. In today’s economy, “It’s not a sure thing at all,” he said. Several trial deployments have been delayed.

Southwest announced Feb. 10 it had installed the system on one plane and would equip two more by early March. The budget airline is partnering with Yahoo to offer a homepage featuring a flight tracker and content that is relevant to passengers’ destinations.

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