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Internet service in the air is slow to take off

Written by editor

Several U.S. airlines, including Delta Air Lines Inc., Virgin America, AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, Southwest Airlines Co., Alaska Air Group Inc.

Several U.S. airlines, including Delta Air Lines Inc., Virgin America, AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, Southwest Airlines Co., Alaska Air Group Inc. and UAL Corp.’s United Airlines, are rolling out technology to bring wireless Internet service to hundreds of aircraft — a move that promises to allow passengers almost continuous access to the Web and email while flying. The nascent services are particularly attractive to frenetic business-class travelers who can’t stand being off the email grid for even an hour or two in-flight.

Any carrier that establishes a big head start over rivals could have an advantage in the battle to attract these coveted passengers. The airlines hope revenue from Internet-access fees will cover installation costs, roughly $100,000 per aircraft for the most widely used service, and add to their perennially challenged bottom lines.

The biggest challenge for fliers is finding a flight actually offering Wi-Fi access at all. While a few planes are starting to sport Wi-Fi access, so far, no big carrier has built up an advantage. None of the major airlines can promise which flights offer the service. That means it will be some time before most airline passengers can tell the home office they will be able to keep working midair.

Virgin America, the fledgling discount carrier founded by Sir Richard Branson, is moving fastest out of the Wi-Fi gate, with plans to have all 28 planes outfitted by the end of May. At bigger carriers with exponentially larger fleets, it will take years to outfit all aircraft. Delta, which last year said it would be the first of the major airlines to equip its entire domestic fleet with the service, has Wi-Fi on about 130 aircraft currently and won’t be finished equipping all 500 until late next year. American Airlines plans to have as many as 150 of its roughly 600 aircraft Wi-Fi enabled by the end of the year.

Big airlines say they can’t guarantee which flights will feature the service because aircraft and schedules are moved around so frequently. “The service will have to be widespread around the fleet” before the airline will promise it to passengers on a particular trip, says American spokesman Tim Smith.

Delta has aggressively publicized the service in recent months — in its in-flight magazine, billboards and some airport advertising — even though it doesn’t list which flights actually offer Wi-Fi. On a Tuesday afternoon last month, on Delta Flight 1782 from Atlanta to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, there was no indication before boarding that the Boeing 757 was outfitted with Wi-Fi. The Journal had confirmed ahead of time with Delta that the flight that day featured the service, but a regular passenger wouldn’t be able to do the same.

The first sign that 1782 had the service was a small decal next to the aircraft door with a Wi-Fi emblem of the sort often posted in coffee shops and hotel lobbies.

Once passengers had boarded, flight attendant Linda Oakes announced over the intercom: “We have our state-of-the-art in-flight access to the Internet on-board.” She instructed passengers to read a cardboard flyer located in the seatback pocket, outlining simple instructions on how to log on once the aircraft was airborne and above 10,000 feet. The service, to minimize interference with the aircraft’s communications systems, isn’t authorized beneath that altitude.

The gist of the directions: Turn on your laptop. (Tip: Your computer must be equipped for wireless access.) Look for the wireless network and connect. Open your Web browser and follow the online steps to pay for the service with a credit card.

Like American, Virgin America, and the service planned by United, Delta uses a system called Gogo, developed by Aircell LLC. The service, which uses land-based cellphone towers for its signal, costs $9.95 for flights under three hours and $12.95 for longer flights. Those with Wi-Fi enabled hand-held devices can log on for $7.95 and the company says it will soon introduce a monthly pass for travelers who expect to use the service often during any given 30-day period.

A rival service provided by Row 44 Inc. uses satellite communications for its signal and is currently being tested by Southwest and Alaska. Prices for that service have yet to be determined.

Most Flight 1782 passengers using Gogo said they found it easy to use and at least as fast as most Wi-Fi spots on land.

“I’ll definitely want to know which planes have it and which planes don’t,” said Scott Brown, an Atlanta-based executive with a Danish technology company, seated just aft of the business-class section. “It makes a big difference to be able to stay busy.”

Mr. Brown said he was able to watch live Internet video, send email and do other online tasks without delay. In the next seat, Sean Hill, a marketing executive with an Atlanta-based restaurant chain, said he logged into his company’s virtual private network easily. “I can get a lot of work done,” said Mr. Hill, justifying the fee he billed to his corporate credit card.

While the system seems easy enough to use for those with hassle-free computers, passengers shouldn’t expect flight attendants to stand in for the office IT consultant if they have problems logging on. “We got 20 hours of training on the system,” joked Ms. Oakes, the flight attendant, explaining that attendants are merely briefed on the basics of the service, but in fact have little knowledge of any technical issues that could arise.

On another recent Delta flight between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, flight attendants said they didn’t know whether Wi-Fi was available and scoffed at the suggestion they help a passenger who was having trouble logging on.

Aircell offers a live chat service with technical-support personnel once customers log on; one customer-service rep said the support center gets over 40 chats per day. But that doesn’t do much good for those who can’t log onto the network in the first place.

Passengers should also remember that very few commercial airliners currently have power outlets on board in economy class. Airlines are increasingly installing them on newer aircraft, but passengers should charge up laptops to be on the safe side.

Another concern is security. This week, Netragard LLC, a network-security company, said its testers were able to intercept data from the Gogo service. “It is extremely easy for a hacker on board to intercept and record all data sent and received by passengers,” the company said in a statement. Aircell in a statement said data sent via Gogo “is as secure as any public Wi-Fi hotspot in a hotel, airport or coffee house.”