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US airlines boost inflight internet

Date
Three US airlines want to conquer the final frontier for internet access - overseas flights.

Three US airlines want to conquer the final frontier for internet access - overseas flights. Photo: Bloomberg

Qantas may have scrapped its plans to offer inflight internet services on flights, but US airlines are ramping up their on-board Wi-Fi offerings.

Airline passengers can already get online 30,000 feet over Oklahoma. Soon US airlines will offer Internet connections over the ocean, too.

United, Delta, and American - the nation's three biggest airlines - said on Wednesday that they're within weeks of having their first international flights with Internet service.

It's fairly common for passengers to check email and update Facebook while flying over the US. But the air-to-ground signal used by those planes won't work over the ocean. So airlines are installing satellite-based systems to solve that problem.

THE SERVICE

The three airlines have not yet disclosed pricing for the international Wi-Fi. United said prices will depend on the distance of the flight and other factors.

Travellers eager to stream a movie through their Netflix account are likely to be disappointed. Delta's international Wi-Fi systems both will include computer servers on the plane with movies and TV shows that travelers can watch - for a fee. United has said that it, too, will have on-board streaming video.

For domestic flights, Delta currently charges US99 cents to watch TV shows and $US3.99 for a movie.

Speeds on Delta's current domestic Internet connection are good enough for email and basic Web browsing. Delta is upgrading its domestic fleet's Internet connection to make it three times faster.

United hasn't disclosed speeds on its new system, but CEO Jeff Smisek claimed in October that it will be consistently faster than what competitors have.

WHO HAS WHAT

For Internet connections over the US, Delta is out front. Roughly 800 Delta planes used on domestic flights - all but its smallest regional jets - have onboard Wi-Fi. American has installed it on about 400 planes, or 81 per cent of its fleet.

United basically missed the first wave of onboard Wi-Fi - it's on only 13 planes that fly between the US East and West coasts.

Now it's installing satellite-based Internet connections that work both in the US and overseas. And it expects to have the first plane with that dual capability within the next few weeks and 300 by the end of 2013.

Delta Air Lines expects to have its first international plane ready for Internet access within 45 days, Chief Operating Officer Stephen Gorman said at an analyst presentation on Wednesday. Its whole fleet should have Internet access in the next 18 months to two years, he said.

American Airlines just got its first plane with international Internet access on Tuesday night, a new Boeing 777-300ER that it expects to begin hauling passengers by the end of next month. The service will become more widely available as the company gets new planes or overhauls some of its older 777s. A spokeswoman declined to offer details about how fast it will add international Wi-Fi.

Southwest Airlines expects to have satellite-based Wi-Fi on about three-quarters of its fleet by the end of January, spokeswoman Katie McDonald said.

AN EXCEPTION

After a nine-month test, Qantas dropped the service from its international A380 flights after just 5 per cent of passengers paid for it. Cost was likely one factor - prices ranged from $12.90 to $39.90. And Qantas noted the flights from Australia to London and Los Angeles were overnight, when many passengers preferred to sleep.

PROFITABLE?

In-flight Internet has overcome early doubts about whether passengers would pay enough for it to justify the cost. The gear that provides a wireless signal on the plane costs money and adds weight, which adds to the fuel bill on each flight.

The US airlines clearly see it as a money-maker now, though. Even some of their youngest passengers are carrying Internet-enabled devices such as smartphones and hand-held games, making them potential Wi-Fi customers.

Smisek, the United CEO, said on a conference call in October that his airline will own the on-board equipment, allowing it to set pricing and steer passengers toward websites and its own streaming video. Airborne Wi-Fi lets United "establish a wide array of commercial agreements," he said, boosting its value for the airline.

- AP Digital

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