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Wed, Jan 23, 2008

American Airlines To Be First To Unveil In-flight Wi-Fi

Aircell-Sourced System To Begin Trial Runs In June

Air France may be the first airline to allow passengers to use cell phones in flight, but American Airlines apparently will be the first to give us in-flight wi-fi.

American tells The Dallas Morning News it has installed the Aircell LLC wireless Internet system on a Boeing 767 for a test. The airline says 15 planes will be equipped for the trial run, which is expected to begin in June after a thorough shakedown to find any technical issues. Users will be able to access secured corporate sites, shop online and even download entertainment.

In contrast to Boeing's ill-fated Connexion system -- which weighed a half-ton, used a surfboard-size antenna to link with satellites, and was only ever used by a handful of fliers -- Aircell's equipment weighs about 125 pounds, costs about $100,000 per plane, and uses two small antennas on the belly of the plane to communicate through ground-based infrastructure. Most common consumer wi-fi devices will be compatible.

Surveys by Forrester Research indicate the market for the service has grown in the past few years -- 45 percent of leisure travelers in the survey responded they wanted internet access during flights of four hours or more, and were willing to pay $10 for it. 24 percent said they'd buy it even on flights as short as one to two hours.

Henry Harteveldt, a Forrester Research analyst, said leisure travelers were surveyed because their decisions aren't based on expense accounts. Demand among business travelers who can get reimbursed or write off the cost is expected to be even higher.

An Aircell system can accommodate up to 256 users on an individual access point, and American will have three access points per aircraft. The individual access points use antennas said to resemble an air hockey mallet. They'll be hidden behind overhead luggage bins.

John Gebka, a salesman from Kentucky, told the paper he can't wait. "It would shorten my day, that's for sure," he said, as he hurried to check e-mail and charge his laptop between flights at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport last week.

Kevin Hager, a consultant who flies two or three times a month, remarked, "It adds two to three hours of productivity to your day. Now, that's just dead time."

Pricing is not set, but Aircell predicts access during trips over three hours long will cost travelers $12.95, while shorter flights will be around $10. The company says it's working on daily, monthly and yearly subscriptions for frequent travelers.

American has committed to installing the system on 767-200s used to fly the carrier's transcontinental routes, but will expand quickly to other fleets if the test is successful. The incremental revenue will help the carrier's bottom line, but any marketing advantage could be short-lived -- Virgin America also plans to install the Aircell system in 2008.

FMI: www.aa.com, www.aircell.com

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