American Airlines launches Internet service on some flights

By SUZANNE MARTA / The Dallas Morning News

ABOARD AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT NO. 1 – Transcontinental flying underwent a sea change Wednesday.

During a six-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles, Bek Andersen was able to edit photos and send them to clients.

Michael Lavine was able to watch Jamaica’s Usain Bolt break the world record in the 200-meter Olympic race.

And Ross Johnston was able to clear through e-mail, which he’d otherwise be scrambling to do before his meetings.

American Airlines Inc. became the first U.S. airline to launch wireless broadband access in-flight, turning the flight into a productive workday – and launching a service that industry officials say will soon become a necessity to attract lucrative business travelers and to offer in-flight entertainment.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Henry Harteveldt, an analyst with Forrester Research. “You’re no longer forced to be isolated from what’s going on in your office, with your clients or with friends or family.”

Put more bluntly, he said, “Airlines that don’t offer Internet access are going to lose business.”

Mr. Lavine, of New York, said the broadband access would help him remain productive on the several flights he makes to Los Angeles each month.

“Otherwise, I’d just be reading,” he said.

Not that Mr. Lavine restricted himself to work Wednesday. It simply proved too tempting not to watch the live streaming video from Beijing.

“I didn’t want to wait six hours to find out what happened,” he said.

For Mr. Johnston, who flies several times a month from his home in Florida to New York and the West Coast, the service means he can stay in contact with his team as easily as if he were in the office.

“I don’t lose visibility,” he said.

The novelty of the system rang strong on Wednesday, as users marveled at the speed of service, which is similar to a Wi-Fi hotspot you’d find at a hotel or café.

And although the system by Aircell LLC is designed not to enable voice-based functions, Mr. Johnston was able to reach his wife via Skype – at least long enough to get a glimpse of his two kids.

Charles DeBevoise had one complaint. The $12.95 fee is for a flight over three hours, but “I don’t have battery power to last that long.”

For American Airlines, in-flight connectivity is a service nine years in the making. It now will be available on about 28 flights a day served by its 767-200 fleet.

And although the Fort Worth-based carrier doesn’t plan to commit to installing it on its other fleet types until after three to six months of testing, it’s already developing plans for how that would happen.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to roll this across our domestic fleet,” said H. Douglas Backelin, American’s manager of in-flight communications and technology.

The in-flight broadband is seen as a new revenue source for the airline industry, which has been struggling to overcome painfully high fuel costs.

In-flight broadband is expected to generate $6.6 million in passenger revenue this year, according to a June report by MultiMedia Intelligence.

The research firm estimates the industry will skyrocket to $936 million revenue by 2012.

Jack Blumenstein, president and chief executive of Aircell, said that 2012 figure may be too low.

The company, based in Itaska, Ill., estimates it will have its Gogo system available on 2,000 commercial aircraft by the end of next year.

Mr. Backelin declined to disclose the terms of American’s deal with Aircell, but said the carrier expects “to at least break even,” and that the three- to six-month test was intended to “verify the technology, business model and customer valuation of the service.”

American isn’t the only carrier planning broadband service.

Delta Air Lines Inc. has already announced it would install Aircell’s service across its 133 McDonald-Douglas MD-88/90 jets this fall, and would have it available throughout its 330 mainline jets by mid-2009.

And Virgin America Inc. is expected to have Aircell’s system up and running across its fleet by the end of this year.

Several other carriers also are testing in-flight connectivity. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. plans to test Row 44 Inc. next month. The satellite-based system is also scheduled for trial by Alaska Airways Group’s Alaska Airlines.

JetBlue Airways Corp. has tested a system that enables e-mail and text messaging, in addition to satellite-based television, a system that Houston’s Continental Airlines Inc. plans to have ready for its continental U.S. routes by next year.

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