In-flight wireless Internet to expand to hundreds of American Airlines planes


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The future of air travel? Credit: Bekathwia via Flickr.

Flights are getting canceled and you have to pay to check a bag. But, hey, at least you can now obsessively check your Gmail on more planes than ever. American Airlines plans to announce Tuesday that it’s installing Gogo Inflight Internet service on 318 of its domestic aircraft, up from the 15 planes that currently allow customers to wirelessly access the Internet.


American isn’t the only airline ramping up wireless service. Gogo, provided by Illinois company Aircell, is also available on about 80 Delta/Northwest aircraft and some Virgin America planes. Aircell says it is working on making the in-flight wireless service available on United Airlines and Air Canada as well.

“We’ve really just been charging forward since August,” said John Happ, a vice president at Aircell. American launched the company’s in-flight service on Aug. 20, 2008. So far, the airline has focused the service on routes connecting New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami.

The network operates through an air-to-ground system that uses three small antennas installed on the aircraft to connect to Aircell’s mobile broadband network, which has 92 cell towers ...

... throughout the country. The equipment costs about $100,000 per plane to install, but weighs only about 125 pounds, Thomas E. Weigman, another Aircell vice president, said in a meeting with the Times earlier this month.

The connection is fast, he says, about 3.1 megabits per second. That’s fast enough to allow consumers to buy and watch video from stores such as iTunes, which Weigman hopes will eventually replace the generic in-flight entertainment provided by airplanes. It’s also fast enough for busy professionals to connect to their organization’s virtual private network, he said.

‘It’s great for the Type-A workaholics that can’t stand that feeling of being disconnected,’ he said.

If you’re dreading the idea of that annoying guy next to you IMing and Twittering through your flight, at least be assuaged by the fact that customers can’t use the network to make a phone call -- yet. Aircell says the airlines have asked it to disable voice-over Internet protocol services.


Sadly, mobile Internet service on American is not free. For access for flights longer than three hours Aircell charges $12.95; the short-flight pass (less than three hours) will set you back $9.95. Customers who want to connect to the network via a mobile device must pay $7.95.

You might be wondering why airlines are paying to install Aircell’s equipment on their airplanes when many have stopped serving pretzels and charge you for a Coke. Happ says in-flight Internet is a way for airlines to make money too: They get a cut each time a customer purchases air time. They may also lure customers who choose an Aircell-enabled flight so they can access their e-mail or other services on the go, rather than be forced to watch ‘The Mummy’ one more time.

“It’s a considerable revenue generator for the airlines,” he said. “Everybody wins with this product.”

-- Alana Semuels