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Skeptics wondered whether in-flight Internet would just be blue-sky thinking: I'm more in the optimistic camp--the plane is half-full, as it were--than skeptic, but I've wondered since December whether plans to get the Internet aloft were stalling. According to the key companies involved, delays have occurred, but all engines are on full throttle. Now I'll spare you more aircraft "jokes."
In preparation for a longer article on in-flight Internet, I've spoken to several firms recently, including Aircell and Row 44. Let me share a few choice tidbits of interest to those of us following this market closely.
Aircell's executive vice president of airlines John Happ told me yesterday that the delay in Delta's rollout was partly coordination. Delta had originally planned to handle the Aircell Gogo service installation itself, but opted to hand that role to Aircell. Aircell has two intsallation lines putting its service in planes with an overnight turnaround, and will have two more lines in operation between this Sunday and the next few weeks.
Both Happ and Jack Blumenstein, Aircell's CEO, said that the target of during third quarter of 2009 for the full widebody fleet rollout of Delta remains on track. "We'll move on to, and toward later on in the year" with a firmer schedule about the Northwest mainline fleet, Blumenstein said.
While Delta and Aircell had planned to have more planes in the air sooner--75 by the end of 2008 at one point--this revised scheduled reflects the change in Aircell's installation role.
Virgin America's rollout continues apace, and Blumenstein said, surprisingly, that by third quarter, "We'll have at least one other airline fully deployed over that same time frame."
Aircell plans to start offering a proliferation of pricing plans soon, with overnight discounts, special event discounts, subscriptions, run-of-airline daypasses, and other bundles for regular or frequent users.
From Row 44's CEO, John Guidon, I learned that the company is poised for a fairly big expansion. Alaska Airlines was a natural customer because a lot of its routes are overseas and mountains, as well to, well, Alaska, which is remote.
Row 44's system can push about 4 Mbps of real network access to a plane, with a larger amount of streaming traffic.
Alaska Airlines finally announced its test launch of Row 44's satellite-backed in-flight Internet service: Alaska's routes take them mostly over water to Alaska or Mexico from its Seattle hub, and thus Aircell's solution is a bad fit. The airline and Row 44 have been talking about trials for quite some time. Today marks the first live launch of a plane, apparently a single 737-700, which will fly from Seattle to San Jose today. This plane will fly for 60 days while they test the offering.
If "successful," and the press release doesn't define what success means, a schedule will be set for installing service across its fleet. Pricing hasn't yet been set; it will be free on this aircraft during the trial.
Row 44 is using satellites, the same Ku band type that Connexion by Boeing employed, but the company has claimed in the past that its combination of advanced antennas and secret sauce lets it extract massively higher data rates than Connexion while keeping the costs at a level that profit can be earned.
Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal opinion writer, finds inspiration in in-flight Wi-Fi: Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Reagan, had a brief exhilaration in sending and receiving email on an American Airlines flight because it reminded her of a better time in America's past in which innovation and was all around. "If you were paying attention, if you understood you were witnessing something great, the invention of a new age, the computer age, it caught at your throat." Despite the collapse, the uncertainty, and the change around us, Noonan is optimistic. She believes that the future is in change at local levels, from the bottom up. "No one trusts big anymore. In the future everything will be local."
Delta now saying five aircraft a week will be equipped with Wi-Fi: Everything about putting Internet in the air seems to suffer from unexplained delays, but at least service is expanding. Slowly. Detla's Mike Kotas blogged on 15-January that they would be putting "upwards of 10 new wi-fi equipped aircraft per week" in the air starting that day.
On 18-February, a Delta product manager blogged that the firm is "averaging five installations a week," and have just 25 planes equipped, which is an increase of far less than 5 per week over the nearly 5-week period.
I've long been bullish on Aircell's flavor of in-flight Internet, expecting that the problems in getting service signed up and equipped have been more financial than technical. Airlines have gone through a horrible rollercoaster over the last year-plus. Fuel prices caused massive losses. The drop in jet fuel cost incurred large hedging losses. The economy's partial collapse reduced flyers, especially lucrative business travelers.
Delta has about 330 planes that they plan to install Wi-Fi on in the first wave, not including its Northwestern aircraft. At 5 planes per week, that puts them all in service before second quarter 2010, instead of the firm's earlier prediction of second half of 2009, which was itself revised to late 2009 last December.
At least they have a nice logo.
USA Today reports that Southwest Airlines will start an in-flight Internet trial on one plane: The service will be satellite-backed using Row 44's system, and be free during the trial. Three additional planes will also have the service installed by early March, the newspaper reports. Southwest has 536 Boeing 737 aircrafts, the majority in 737-700s, as of October.
The story is kind of a mess: While it covers a lot of the usual bases, such as "will aircraft become places you have to work during work hours," but there's a lot wrong here.
"about $10 for three hours and more for longer flights": Since there are only two prices, why not say $10 for flights under three hours, $13 for longer flights? More specific is always better in these cases.
A flight attendant union spokesperson isn't challenged after making this statement: "Ms. Caldwell said the flight attendants' union also feared that terrorists plotting a scheme on a plane could use Wi-Fi to communicate with one another on board and with conspirators on the ground."
This should have been addressed by asking an aviation security expert, not by passing it on. Terrorists (and anyone) can communicate using ad hoc Wi-Fi networks or Bluetooth on planes today above 10,000 feet. A terrorist (or anyone) could also have high-gain cellular equipment in a carry-on that would be allowed through security without a problem, and that would allow ground communication.
The notion that a controlled service with an in-air hotspot and air-to-ground communication makes it easier--maybe. I think we're unlikely to see terrorists planning an operation in which the presence of public Internet access was a given.
"The Federal Aviation Administration currently bans use of cellphones aboard planes because they may interfere with a jet’s navigation system." Really, it's because the FAA hasn't been able to run down a very small number of cases in which an effect has been alleged. It's increasingly clear that interference is unlikely, except possibly with older less-hardened aircraft avionic systems. The ban remains in place largely because there's no testing procedure, and because the FCC continues to prohibit 850 MHz PCS service. (I believe, technically speaking, the FCC doesn't restrict 1700-2100 MHz cell phone networks, but that no plane has been certified to allow such phones.)
"But Wi-Fi, as most technophiles know, offers a way around that ban, since the wireless connections can be used to tap into Skype and other programs that offer telephone service via a computer." Sure, and given that the reporter talked to Aircell, I'm not sure why the fact that Aircell actively attempts to block any VoIP or video chat from happening wasn't mentioned.
"On Delta, service is $9.95 for a flight of three hours or less, $12.95 for a longer flight." That's the case for all three airlines currently flying with Aircell's Gogo service. (Virgin America isn't mentioned here.)
"If all 150 passengers on a typical domestic flight were to buy three hours of time, that would mean an extra $1,500 or so in revenue per trip..." That's an insane number, and no one in the industry expects anything like that. A more reasonable analysis would have suggested that 5 to 15 percent of passengers might use the service, as a possible range. And the revenue doesn't go straight to the airlines, of course, which isn't mentioned here, either.
"By offering the service, airlines in the United States are catching up to many foreign carriers, like Lufthansa, which has offered the service for the past several years." Oh, spit: The reporter didn't get the memo that Lufthansa stopped offering Connexion service over two years ago when Boeing pulled the plug. This is incredibly sloppy.
Aviation Daily reports that Row 44's satellite trial on Southwest Airlines bumped to mid-February: The industry publication says that Southwest will install Row 44's Ku-band satellite receiver on 3 Boeing 737s, and Alaska Airlines on 1 737. The trial was originally planned for launch by the end of January, but sources are saying that FAA approval is delaying launch.
These tests were originally announced for the middle of 2008, and I was talking to Row 44 about their launch plans way back in summer 2006. As with Aircell, innumerable problems have likely cropped up. Aircell's launch was pushed back about a year, and about 30 aircraft currently appear to have Aircell Gogo service on board. That number should climb above 100 within a couple months, and if it does not, questions will be asked.
Row 44 claims to have an affordable satellite solution that can deliver far higher data rates than the air-to-ground system Aircell is using. Further, Row 44 can serve over-water routes, which makes it quite appealing to Alaska, which flies a huge number of routes to its namesake state and to Mexico.
The huge spike in oil was certainly a delaying factor as airlines weighed every possible contingency and every ounce they were carrying.
The real issue for Row 44 is whether enough aircraft can be equipped, and whether their overhead structure for Ku-band transponder leasing and aircraft installation produces a real return. We'll see. Boeing tried it with far older, slower, and heavier gear; Row 44 has the 21st century advantage. [link via Joe Brancatelli]
10 planes will get Wi-Fi installed every week from now on: Delta Airlines mentioned in passing in a blog entry last week that their Wi-Fi production line installation "begins with ship [airplane numbered] 9015 for the 11th aircraft. From January 15th through 3Q09, TechOps will produce upwards of 10 new wi-fi equipped aircraft per week."
If you want to understand the cost and complexity of installing gear on planes, read the first part of this post, related to putting in fully reclinable seats for trans-Atlantic flights. Their craft numbered 1804 will require 63 days for the modification. That's two months out of service to put in a super-premium-first-class option. The mind staggers.
Boingo takes over Austin airport: Austin Bergstrom has been operated by Wayport for about forever, being the town in which Wayport was founded. Boingo Wireless started gradually, but has ultimately become the dominant airport Wi-Fi (and cellular back-end) operator in North America.
United adds Internet: United Airlines becomes the fifth airline to sign up for in-flight Internet service with Aircell, a company that offers ground-to-air broadband service to planes. United will start a pilot program in the second half of 2009 with 13 of its Boeing 757 aircraft in its p.s. airline operation between LAX and JFK and SFO and JFK.
American Airlines has been offering the service, under Aircell's Gogo brand, on 15 cross-country 757-200s since September 2008, Virgin American equipped one plane in December 2008, and Delta Airlines has been offering service on about 10 planes since late 2008. American has made no future commitment; Virgin has said their small fleet would be fully Wi-Fi enabled by mid-2009; and Delta plans to put service on its entire domestic fleet of over 300 planes.
For Aircell, this isn't yet a vindication of their decade-long effort to put broadband into commercial aircraft. The company worked for years to push low-use narrowband radiotelephone service (eventually, only offered by Verizon Airfone) off the airwaves in favor of broadband, and then changed its corporate structure to obtain the capital to win an important auction in 2006.
With American, Delta (with Northwest thrown in), and United on board among the big carriers, and their most significant competitor Row 44 without a production aircraft or public test with their partners Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines, Aircell is on top of the heap. But recall that Delta is the only large carrier committed to fleet-wide deployment, and that hasn't happened yet. American is moving into the 5th month of a test, and United isn't starting up service for at least six months, and then only on 13 aircraft. So much remains to be seen.
I've used the service on Virgin America, during the press event, and expected that 4 or 5 of Virgin's planes would be ready to go by now based on their public statements. That hasn't happened yet. Still, the service works quite well, and all reports are that for the right customer, the price is right. Update: Virgin's press spokesperson said that 4 planes now have Wi-Fi turned on, which is about right on scheduled. Funny; they're not showing multiple planes or flights at their Wi-Fi tracker.
United will offer Gogo service for $12.95 per flight. Other airlines have tiered service based on flight duration: $9.95 for flights of 3 or fewer hours; $12.95 for longer flights. However, United will only be flying with Internet service on routes of 5 or more hours.
The service uses a cellular backhaul technology to ground stations—EVDO Rev. A—that allows it to peak over 2 Mbps downstream (from the Internet to the plane) and nearly 1 Mbps upstream (from passengers to the Internet).
(Air Canada is the among the first airlines to sign up for Gogo; they will launch service for U.S. flyover flights only initially, as Aircell doesn't yet have Canada regulatory approval. Their launch plans haven't yet been announced.)
Row 44 is flying some journalists around in an old plane to show off their satellite-based service: At CES, the LA Times's David Colker was flown up in a 1950s seaplane to test the offering. But, more importantly, Row 44 told him that public tests will finally take place on Alaska and Southwest scheduled flights this month. (Colker's closing paragraphs make it seem that he hasn't heard of Internet service from Aircell on American, Delta, and Virgin, limited as that service currently is.)
Row 44 has been talking about its plans for at least two years. The firm says it has cheaper equipment that's far faster than Boeing's, even though it uses the same Ku-band satellite communications. The company told me long ago that they have cleverer transponder licenses that don't lock them into the same cash-hemorrhaging situation that Connexion found itself in.
Reporters are conflating text messaging, instant messaging: I keep seeing articles like this one from the Washington Post, in which it states that Aircell's in-flight Internet service won't allow voice calls but will allow a variety of Internet services, like instant messaging (IM), as well as text messaging. That's not quite correct.
SMS messages require a cell network to back them when sent and received using a carrier's system. There are SMS gateways, including a free one built into AOL Instant Messenger, that allows a gateway user to avoid fees for sending or receiving IMs, or to use a fixed-rate plan (depending on the service) via an Internet connection. That includes services like Truphone which allow SMS and VoIP over WiFi, although VoIP will be blocked.
Aircell has no current plans to put picocells on board, that would act as mini cell towers, and that would be required for native SMS. The fact that people can use gateways and workarounds still doesn't allow them to continue to use an understood mechanism while in flight. People will need to change behavior.
Actor, director, genius Stephen Fry uses American Airlines Internet service: I admit to being an unabashed fan of this British performer, who also happens to write quite well about technology, and who uses Twitter. He filed this tweet from an AA flight taking him from NY to LA, after watching his friend and "m'colleague" Hugh Laurie host Saturday Night Live last night.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that the newspaper's local airline Delta will put Wi-Fi in planes starting next week: Just six planes will be equipped initially with Aircell Gogo service, which costs $10 for flights of less than 3 hours, and $13 for 3 hours or more. A total of 10 planes will be wired up for wireless this year, as opposed to the 75 that Delta had hoped to have ready to go.
The J-C says that initially, New York-based McDonald-Douglas MD88s and Boeing 757s will have the service. The airline told the newspaper that they were targeting 330 planes during 2009. As I noted a few days ago, reports that Delta had changed its plans were incorrect: they had always intended to put planes in service with Wi-Fi during 2008.
(Coincidentally, my mainstream media piece on in-flight Internet access appears in Saturday's Seattle Times--and Delta announced its news too late to include!)
Because the FAA certifies airworthiness of equipment by its installation on specific models of aircraft, it's worth noting that Delta has the greatest number of any model of planes in those two models: Planespotters.net says Delta has 132 757s and 116 MD88s in service. It has a sizable number of 767s (99) and 737s (75), as well. Delta's total in-service count is about 450.
Many of these planes serve international routes, and Aircell's service currently works only over ground and only over the U.S., so 330 may represent the total number of primarily domestic wide-body craft. (Aircell has a satellite add-on via Inmarsat for general (private) aviation, and the company told me a few weeks ago that they're already talking with airlines that fly over water about a hybrid ground/satellite operation.)
Delta's merger with Northwest Airlines adds about 275 more, of which 71 are Boeing 757s, although Airbus craft form the substantial majority of its fleet. Again, it's unclear how many of these planes are used mostly for international or mixed US/international routes.
Gizmodo and Engadget are engaged in the usual echo chamber of blogging: Some of us, you know, make a few phone calls to see what's going on--i.e., reporting--instead of regurgitating press releases. Both Engadget and Gizmodo in the last day have seized upon a year's end summary press release from Aircell to say, hey, wait, Delta's launching in 2008 instead of 2009!
Well, no. The press release reiterates what Delta and Aircell have said earlier: Delta still expects to have service launched in 2008, although they did say fall, and they have 10 days left to execute on that. When I called Delta a few days ago, they said they had nothing to add, but might soon, which I take to mean that they're striving to meet their 2008 deadline for having some birds with Gogo Internet service.
Likewise, when I spoke to Aircell a few weeks ago, they had nothing to add about Delta's plans beyond what Delta was saying.
The two gadget sites are under enormous strain to post a million new, previously unseen items every day. The pressure must be getting to them.
I've been trying for years to get real numbers about paid airport sessions and usage from Wi-Fi providers: Then the Miami-Dade airport authority just goes and reveals them all. Cool. A local paper reports that the the authority expects to net $700,000 instead of $900,000 as its share of service. The article says that the airport saw 12,500 sessions in September and 14,000 sessions in October, including pay-as-you-go users and roaming customers of Boingo, iPass, and T-Mobile.
The airport adjusted the price for service from $5 per hour and $10 per day to $7 per day and $20 per month during the summer, which accounted for some of the reduction in revenue, along with a drop in air travel.
We can run some numbers here, of course, as I'm having trouble with the math. If the airport is netting $700,000 on perhaps 200,000 sessions for the year (assuming that there was higher usage when travel was heavier, coupled with an increase late in the year), then their take is $3.50 per session net. It's possible the reporter was mistaken, and this is gross revenue.
At $7 per day or $20 per month for half the year, that would mean that the majority of sessions were pay-as-you-go; a $20 per month user could represent 10 or 20 sessions. If you assume an average of $5 per session for pay-as-you-go (by taking into account monthly users and rates across the year), you need about 70 or 80 percent of my estimated sessions count. That would leave 40,000 to 60,000 sessions paid a buck a pop, if that, by Boingo, iPass, and T-Mobile.
I was digging around my basement looking for a USB extender and came across this gem: Anyone remember Tenzing? Anyone? First folks to put Internet access (sort of) on planes? Well, I do. Tenzing was a Seattle company that was later merged into what became OnAir (a Airbus/SITA joint venture).
Tenzing's ultimate goal was Internet access via satellite on planes, but they started with a clever workaround. Using Verizon AirFone's narrowband air-to-ground phone service and an onboard proxy server, Tenzing offered email on United and, I believe, Delta for a short period. The service offered subject lines for a small fixed fee (a few dollars a flight) along with the first part of a message, with longer messages being charged by the K.
The service didn't catch on fast enough, and then 9/11 hit, which put the domestic airline industry on the skids from which it still hasn't recovered. Tenzing shed workers, and then reorganized its assets into what was transferred to OnAir.
This Connectivity Kit that I dug up was a promo to let people test out Tenzing's service. It came with a card good for a short, free Verizon AirFone call; a code for one free Webmail session; and a retractable RJ11 phone cable because this required a modem connection over the local phone network. A CD came with Windows software; Mac users just entered 123-4567 for the dial-up number.
Now, what's amusing about this blast from the past? This is precisely the service--sans phone cord--that JetBlue is offering on its single equipped test plane that has Internet access. Back on 8-June-2008, the LiveTV division of JetBlue that won 1 MHz in the U.S. air-to-ground spectrum auctions in 2006 purchased AirFone's ground assets--communication gear on 100 towers.
While I don't have direct proof that JetBlue is using the same sort of system as Tenzing, the reported onboard features and speeds make it pretty clear that the company hasn't upgraded equipment on the towers yet, though they plan to do so.
Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Americans; enjoy a few days of peace and quiet, the rest of the world.
My interview with Aircell CEO Jack Blumenstein is now available: Through a variety of happy accidents, I wound up interviewing Blumenstein for BoingBoingTV while we were on Virgin America's inaugural Wi-Fi flight/press launch last Saturday.
If we appear hurried, we were trying to finish the interview in the remaining window for access as we were getting close to starting an approach for landing at SFO. Aircell's service is ground-to-air, and they're covering only domestic U.S. flights (and Air Canada's flights for their intra-U.S. portions).
For this test flight, which left and returned from SFO, the route was carefully plotted to keep the plane over the ocean, but oriented towards ground stations to make a loop that wouldn't interfere with SFO ground traffic but which would provide continuous coverage. The company flew a test in their own smaller craft, and then did a test run with the actual Virgin America flight before the press event.
Yesterday was the party flight, today the light of day: For a couple hours on Saturday evening, I was on the hottest flight in the air--well orchestrated by Virgin America to bring together bloggers, press, online celebrities, and a few others, along with a hunk of the staff from Aircell and Virgin America's PR and marketing group. I've uploaded a small set of photos (some a bit abstract due to low lighting).
It seemed like a rousing success to me from both the technical and marketing angle. The service received positive reviews from all aboard, including me, Gizmodo, Engadget, and Cnet. (I was surprised to not see more blog entries or news stories given the quantity of press aboard, but many of those stories will likely follow during the work week.)
I spoke briefly with Dave Cush, the chief executive of Virgin America. He seems very taken with the idea of having a service that no other airline is offering fleet wide. There's a predictability with fleet wide deployment. American's tentative step has probably resulted in low usage due to travelers simply not being aware of the service or trusting that it's available.
Gogo's sign-up process is the only friction in using the service. You must sign up for an account, just like at Amazon or any ecommerce site, and that's irritating although perfectly reasonable. One trick to sidestep this on flight is to sign up in advance. There's no cost, and this allows you to put your credit card number on file. The company has a deal in place with iPass that hasn't turned into anything public yet, but I expect that when that goes live, iPass customers will have the single sign-in they have now, which will bring hundreds of thousands of business travelers into the mix. (This also avoids separate expensing and itemization--and rejection of same--because IT departments can pre-approve certain extra charges via iPass, as I recall.)
Although I didn't have to a chance in my conversations with Jack Blumenstein, the chief executive of Aircell, to talk about the future of the service, I did glean that Aircell is interested in LTE as that standard develops. Aircell uses essentially off-the-shelf EVDO Rev. A over their exclusively licensed frequencies. EVDO Rev. A uses 1.25 MHz channels; Aircell has 1.5 MHz in each direction, so it's a neat fit. That gives them a raw rate of 3.1 Mbps over 1.8 Mbps, with actual top performance somewhat lower. (In some tests, people have gotten 2 Mbps downstream on an American Airline flight with Gogo installed.)
LTE could potentially double to quadruple that rate when it's commercially available, and there should be 1.25 MHz profiles available, even though LTE will typically be used with 5 MHz to 20 MHz channels.
In talks with various folks at Aircell, it's clear that the company is still early into its settling-in period with airlines, and that more baroque and interesting options will be appearing over time. For instance, should the charge for a red-eye flight be the same as a daytime flight? Right now, it is, but the company is interested in dynamic pricing, in which time of day and other factors play in.
They're also aware that that their two-tier pricing ($10 for 3 hours and shorter; $13 for longer flights) isn't that appealing for short hops, such as the one I took yesterday from Seattle to San Francisco. Right now, most of system will be built on cross-country or 3- to 4-hour flights, and as more planes come online, all of this will be examined.
Aircell staff mentioned in passing yesterday--and FlightGlobal expands on--that there's another airline in the wings beyond the four announced airlines. Aircell told FlightGlobal that a sixth airline is near a decision, too.
One staffer told me that the company is also working on planes to integrate satellite Internet at the peripheries of their American profile, so that airlines that fly into and out of the Aircell ground footprint would be able to have some kind of seamless access. I'm looking to get more details about this.
Beyond the Wi-Fi, the Virgin America experience is rather marvelous, because you're flying new planes that were designed with 2006/2007 in mind, not 1996/1997. For every seat in first class and between each seat (thus two per row) is a charging/networking setup: power, using a normal North American three-prong jack; USB; and Ethernet.
The seatback entertainment system, Red, didn't live up to reports. I used Red on three different planes, and was unimpressed by the system's responsiveness. It's a very "heavy touch" touch screen, and doesn't support gesture. Navigating the TV schedule was baffling. The TV system didn't show more than a couple channels on the two commercial flights I took, showing a technical error screen from Dish TV instead. The selection of music was good, along with the ability to create a playlist, but the sluggish interaction coupled with touch responsiveness made it a chore.
Several Red features will require Internet connectivity, and it was interesting that they listed those options (like email and chat) with a "not yet available" label, to pique interest. In every arm rest is a tethered two-sided controller: a keyboard on one side and buttons for the entertainment system on the other. The keyboard makes chat and other features possible, especially as Internet access is rolled out.
Virgin America doesn't take cash, which is fascinating and makes a lot of sense. Every Red screen and every controller can handle a credit card swipe. You order drinks and food from the Red system, paying for them with the card. Once Internet access is in place, it looks like you'll be able to set up an account with Virgin, and simply login and charge movies, premium TV shows, food, drink, and even Internet access to that account.
This is a first for yours truly--Wi-Fi from a commercial flight: I'm blogging from somewhere above 10,000 feet on Virgin America's press event flight to kick off its commercial launch of Internet in-flight Internet service. The flight is littered with e-celebrities and a few real ones (a couple of the great ensemble from 30 Rock are here). We're flying over the ocean. And the Gogo Internet service from Aircell seems to be working just fine. I've Twittered, I've IM'd, and I'm about to post this blog entry. (Success! Updated later.)
There are about 130-odd people aboard, and I should apparently recognize lots of people, but I am so unhip, as Douglas Adams once wrote, that it's a wonder my bum doesn't fall off. I was able to talk briefly with Dave Cush, the head of Virgin America, who is very keen on having this rolled out, and at some length with Jack Blumenstein, the head of Aircell. (I did a in-flight air-to-ground interview with Blumenstein for BoingBoingTV which I'll link to when my fine friends there have the segment edited and up.)
The service works as one might expect: Aircell has had months to troubleshoot problems via the American pilot, and we're flying right around San Francisco, so nothing unpredictable in the middle part of the country. In a quick test using Qwest's bandwidth tester, I was able to get 700 Kbps downstream--while there were 100 other people using the service, too.
This wasn't a commercial flight (it was technically a charter), but it was on a regular Virgin America Airbus 320 using Aircell's ground network. Some material was broadcast live from the plane to YouTube Live, which was hosting a simultaneous event on the ground at Fort Mason in San Francisco.
This is the first time I've used Internet service on a commercial plane. Back a few years ago, I was on a Connexion by Boeing press flight that used ground stations for the flight instead of the production satellite servers.
Virgin isn't the first domestic airline to launch Internet service; American Airlines has a pilot with 15 planes that have been in the air on cross country routes for nearly three months. But Virgin is poised to be the first airline to launch Wi-Fi fleet wide. Delta has made a commitment--and they have several hundred planes in the U.S.--but hasn't gotten its first bird launched with service. Alaska, Southwest, and JetBlue have various plans that seem to have been pushed into 2009.
(Photo courtesy Virgin America. I'm the guy in an oatmeal sweater holding a white MacBook up. Disclosure for clarity: I paid my own way to San Francisco for the event.)
Virgin America has formally announced their in-flight Internet launch and plans: Virgin put out the news a few weeks ago that they'd have a press event flight on 22-November to show off their in-flight Wi-Fi with GoGo (AirCell's branded service). They're now formally noting that service will start for all flyers on a single aircraft 24-November, and expand to their entire fleet by second quarter 2009. Earlier reports indicated the airline would equip about one plane per week, which probably conforms to overnight maintenance schedules for their fairly new planes.
Virgin America goes quite a bit beyond other airlines in the electronic amenity department. They have an advanced seat-back system that includes in-flight chat (currently intra-plane, soon across the fleet as Internet access is added); it's gotten rave reviews. They also have power available at every seat, which is an easy choice to make when you're building planes for today's passengers.
I'll be on the press event flight, covering it for a few publications including this fine site, and will try to blog from the air just for the fun of it. If you can blog from the top of mountain, it seems necessary to do so. (Disclosure: I'm paying for all my expense associated with getting to and from the press event.)
Virgin America is the only airline worldwide that's committed to putting Internet service on all its planes, although it has a fairly small fleet. (Planespotters has the full list of 27, including their names, such as the BoingBoing-plumed Unicorn Chaser.)
For a mainstream media article I'm writing, I'd love to hear the experience of anyone who has used American Airlines' GoGo service, which has been in operational on long-haul 767-200s for the last few months. (Email me at email@example.com.)