AA to Lure Business Travelers With Whiff of WiFi

American Airlines will begin offering high-speed, in-flight Internet access on select airplanes next year, the company announced Thursday.

Through an agreement with AirCell, the airline will provide on a test basis high-speed broadband connectivity on its Boeing 767-200 aircraft, which fly primarily transcontinental routes, the company said. Passengers who sign up for the service, available for a fee, will have access to a high-speed Internet connection, virtual private network (VPN) and e-mail capabilities through WiFi-enabled laptops and personal digital assistant (PDA) devices.

“We understand that broadband connectivity is important to our business customers and others who want to use their PDAs and laptops for real-time, in-flight broadband communications,” said Dan Garton, American’s executive vice president of marketing. “This is part of our continuing effort to enhance the travel experience for our customers and meet their evolving needs.”

U.S. Pioneer

If the test program is successful, American may roll out the offering to the rest of its domestic fleet, the company said.

While American is apparently the first U.S. airline to offer in-flight Internet access, some international carriers have already experimented with such services. German airline Lufthansa, for example, offered Internet from Connexion by Boeing beginning in 2004 but ending at the end of 2006, when Boeing shut Connexion down. The company is reportedly considering finding a new partner to restore the service.

Qantas, meanwhile, just recently announced that it would begin offering connectivity starting August 2008.

Three Antennas

The broadband technologies that will provide connectivity on American Airlines aircraft flying over the continental United States are overseen by both the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission.

The technology will include three antennas installed on the outside of each plane. AirCell, meanwhile, will provide cellular towers throughout the continental United States to transmit the signal. The signals received inside the cabin will be 802.11a/b/g WiFi signals.

“I think Internet access, if priced reasonably, is tremendously interesting to the passenger,” Donald Schenk, president of Airline Capital Associates, told TechNewsWorld. “It has all the advantages of helping people become more productive without any of the extreme disadvantages of talking on a cell phone and annoying your neighbors.”

Powering Productivity

While there are some people who prefer to take a break from work during flights, “a large number of business travelers will welcome this,” agreed Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence.

To the extent that other U.S. airlines don’t yet offer the service, it could also be a differentiator that helps lure customers to American Airlines flights, Sterling told TechNewsWorld.

“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “A lot of people will feel they can get more done.”

On-Time Woes

News of American Airlines’ Internet plans comes at a time when the airline industry as a whole sorely needs to appease travelers frustrated by on-time performance rates, which are reportedly at an all-time low. Only 73.58 percent of U.S. flights between January and May 2007 arrived on time — defined as within 15 minutes of schedule — as opposed to the 77.41 percent that were on time over the same months last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

“The data doesn’t even tell the full story, either,” Schenk said. “It doesn’t tell the magnitude of the delay for people who miss their connecting flights. You might not get another flight for a day or two.”

The new offering is part of “a series of moves by American in the past two years to enhance the customer experience by investing in its terminals, products, global route network, and services,” the company said.

“My guess is that now that they’re finally making a little money, they’re desperately trying to improve the quality of their product for the business traveler,” Schenk said.

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