US airlines step up to in-flight internet

This story is sourced from Flight International
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Airborne broadband connectivity is in strong demand in the USA, with carriers seeking to put either air-to-ground or satellite-based systems on board aircraft this year.

Just over a year after Boeing axed Connexion after it failed to drum up enough business for the high-speed internet service, several US operators have declared their intention to offer connectivity, including Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and Virgin America.

There are many connectivity options, with air-to-ground systems offered by AirCell and JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV (the latter using a 1MHz narrowband licence) and Ku-band verions touted by Panasonic Avionics and Row 44, among other smaller providers.

Opinions vary on what is likely to be the most robust and sustainable system in the near and long term, but industry players agree that connectivity is becoming a competitive necessity for US airlines.

That fact was illustrated last week when low-cost giant Southwest - which has long offered a bare-bones in-flight system - announced a deal with Row 44 to trial the California-based firm's Ku-band set-up this summer on board four Boeing 737s.

Able to support high-bandwidth functions, including streaming video, Row 44's system, which includes a specially designed antenna from AeroSat, will enable Southwest passengers to dictate their own in-flight entertainment.

"We took several years to look at what the best option for connectivity would be," says Southwest, adding that it chose Row 44 because of the system's ability to operate overseas, and the belief that "more people will have access to the internet on board the aircraft at one time" than if it had opted for an air-to-ground system.

Southwest has not yet decided how much to charge passengers for the service. If the test is successful, it is looking to equip its entire fleet.

Row 44 is also preparing for trials on an Alaska Airlines 737 and is exploring other functions, including crew phones, aircraft maintenance remote monitoring and security.

Another competitor in the Ku-band space is IFE systems manufacturer Panasonic, which is confident installations will begin on a US carrier by the fourth quarter of this year. That is several months later than planned, says director of strategic product marketing David Bruner, to allow suppliers, including antenna-maker Starling, "to make improvements".

Bruner says it is not a foregone conclusion that Starling's Mijet antenna will be selected, adding: "We're still dating."

Fuel costs are driving a move to cut antenna weight, and figured in American's choice to trial AirCell's system, which will use three antennas per aircraft, on 15 transcontinental Boeing 767-200s. "It's below three figures in terms of pounds and a good workable solution that will help us to be a leader in this," says the carrier.

American intends to offer connectivity to customers in all classes on the 767 for $12.95 for flights lasting three or more hours. Virgin America has also signed on to equip its fleet of Airbus A320 family aircraft with the AirCell service.

AirCell's coverage will initially span the continental USA, but will be extended to Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico. By the nature of its air-to-ground offering, AirCell's current system does not support connectivity on overseas flights, however. That would require partnerships with satellite communications providers, which AirCell is now studying.