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Next Generation Networks: October 12, 2009 eNewsletter
October 12, 2009

Nearly Glitch-Free, Airline WiFi Helps Keeps Fliers Happy

By Marisa Torrieri, TMCnet Editor

It’s hard to shake the disappointment I felt the first time I almost tried in-flight WiFi (News - Alert) in June, on a Virgin America flight to Las Vegas.

It was the airline’s “one-day” free WiFi promo with Google (News - Alert), and a rep from the Internet giant had boarded the plane, too, with enticing promises of exciting games and an online scavenger hunt we could play while biding our time thousands of feet off the ground.
But due to some kind of technical malfunction, things didn’t work out (though we were all given a credit toward a future flight!).
The good news is that four months since my WiFi-less flight, things have changed for the better. Although checking your inbox while flying the friendly skies is no longer a unique selling proposition for an airline, major air carriers are reporting that their wireless Internet systems are running well and being used by an increasing number of happy fliers.  
In May, AirTran Airways partnered with Aircell to offer broadband Internet access across its entire fleet of Boeing (News - Alert) 737 and 717 aircraft. Today, all 136 of its aircraft are equipped with Aircell’s Gogo system, which turns a commercial airplane into a WiFi hotspot for laptop and smartphone users.
“No matter what flight you’re on, there’s no doubt it has WiFi,” AirTran spokeswoman Cynthia Tinsley-Douglas told TMCnet. “And the entire fleet was done in mid-July—we phased it in this way so we could work on any issues or glitches before having the entire fleet installed. This process went very well for us.”
The timing couldn’t be better, considering some of the financial setbacks the airline industry has experienced as of late.  According to the Air Transport Association’s most recent annual report, 2008 saw “significant year-over-year declines in the second half,” resulting in 2008 resulted in lower aggregate levels of traffic and capacity for the full year.
Passenger traffic, as measured in system-wide revenue passenger miles (RPMs), decreased 2.2 percent, reversing the 4 percent year-over-year increase from 2006 to
2007. Domestic RPMs fell 3.9 percent, contrasting with 2.7 percent growth in international RPMs. Meanwhile, in the last four months of 2008, capacity fell more than 6 percent, resulting in a 1.7 percent decrease in available seat miles (ASMs) for the year – the first annual decline since 2003.
To keep customers happy, having WiFi-equipped aircraft isn’t just a differentiator – it’s a necessity.
“We believe WiFi is a huge game changer in our favor,” Tinsley-Douglas told TMCnet. “While other airlines have WiFi on some flights and not others, AirTran has WiFi on every flight. It’s part of being a consistent product for our passengers. It allows passengers to be more productive, entertain themselves or even book their next AirTran flight.
Since its launch, Virgin America has seen 12 to 15 percent take rates – with up to 20 to 25 percent of the cabin logging on during some popular transcontinental flights (such as Boston to San Francisco).  Today, Gogo In-flight Internet is available on all Virgin America flights for $12.95 for flights more than three hours; $9.95 for flights between 1.5 and three hours; and now $5.95 for short haul flights of less than 1.5 hours.  For smartphone users, mobile pricing is $7.95 for all flights greater than 1.5 hours.
“We think the ability to stay plugged in has driven higher than usual take rates on Virgin America,” said Abby Lunardi, a spokeswoman for the airline.

As for my ill-fated, WiFi-less flight in June? Apparently it was just an anomaly that occurred during the earlier part of Virgin’s one-day free promo with Google.
“Because for that day we had a temporary splash page up, we experienced some delays with the Aircell connection that were not normal,” Lunardi told TMCnet. “They were troubleshooted and fixed a few hours into the promo, but unfortunately during the first part of the Google day some passengers on some flights were unable to logon.”
Given that the airline’s WiFi functionality is near perfect, with a 99 percent reliability rate, I’ll definitely be giving it a shot on my next Vegas jaunt.

Marisa Torrieri is a TMCnet Editor. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Marisa Torrieri


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