Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wi-Fi's in the sky, but will you pay?

After some tentative first steps, airlines are falling all over themselves to offer passengers wireless Internet access, according to the New York Times. Even bargain-basement carrier AirTrans is getting into the game.

AirTran, a low-cost carrier based in Orlando, Fla., surprised the industry last week with its announcement that it would install Aircell's Gogo Inflight Internet service on its 50 Boeing 737s and 86 Boeing 717s by midsummer. Doing so would make AirTran the first domestic carrier to offer Wi-Fi on its entire fleet.

Delta Air Lines is also speedily installing Wi-Fi. It had previously announced that it was putting the service on its entire mainline domestic fleet of more than 300 aircraft, and said the day before the AirTran demonstration that it now had the Aircell Wi-Fi system on half its planes and would have the other half converted by September.

The rush to go Wi-Fi makes for an interesting horse race in the North American airline industry, where American Airlines, United, Virgin America and Air Canada are all installing Aircell's Gogo system.

AirTran's tickets may be relatively cheap, but its Wi-Fi isn't.

But there are handicaps, including the lack of electrical outlets in most coach cabins (so usage is limited by battery life), and the question of how much demand there actually is for an Internet hookup at the prices being contemplated. AirTran, for example, is charging $9.95 for flights under three hours and $12.95 for those over three hours.

If you're using a smartphone that has Wi-Fi capabilities, you're a little better off. Those will only be charged $7.95.

In fact, as it takes to the skies, Wi-Fi is generally more expensive per minute than the connections you find down here in the ground, where wireless Internet access is increasingly free, given away to lure customers to a business' primary service.

Will what's happened to Wi-Fi on terra firma also happen to the airborne variety? While wireless access has evolved to a free model, that's not the direction strapped airlines have been moving with their amenities. Just ask anyone who's had to pay to check a bag, or buy a "snack box" instead of being given a free meal in coach.

This article from CNN has a roundup of which airlines have announced Wi-Fi service and what they're charging.

Would you pay to use Wi-Fi in the sky? If so, how much? I've embedded a poll in this entry, and feel free to sound off in detail in the comments.

Oh, and if you're reading this at 25,000 feet, let us know how much you paid for the privilege!

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