Southwest Airlines is still in the process of determining installation of a Wi-Fi system supplied by Row 44 on a fifth aircraft.

The Dallas-based carrier launched tests of the Row 44 system that utilizes Ku-band based satellite network to offer in-flight connectivity in February, and the system is now operational on four aircraft.

During a recent interview with ATI Southwest senior manager of technologies and flight operations Doug Murri said those four aircraft are part of the proof of concept phase, and no firm date exists for the placement of the Row 44 system on a fifth aircraft.

However, the carrier anticipates firming up a date for equipping the fifth aircraft within the next couple of months, says Murri.

As the airline continues to monitor the testing Murri says the carrier would have an aggressive schedule for equipping its fleet, which according to Flight's ACAS database currently stands at 538 Boeing 737 classics and next generation aircraft. He estimates Southwest would aim to complete fleet-wide installations in one-to-two years.

Murri explains that Southwest got installation of the 170lb 77kg) system "down to under four days" on the four prototype aircraft. The carrier expects to find additional efficiencies in the process to reduce "the install significantly as we equip more aircraft", he says.

Southwest is still working through its pricing model for in-flight connectivity, but Murri assures that the carrier will be the price leader in that area. Pricing points for the air-to-ground Wi-Fi system supplied to Virgin America by Aircell is $12.95 for daytime flights longer than three hours, $9.95 for daylight trips less than three hours and $5.95 for red eye flights.

American Airlines also uses the Aircell system, and charges $12.95 on long-haul transcontinental flights operated by Boeing 767-200s. The system is currently featured on 15 aircraft, but American plans to roll-out connectivity on more than 300 domestic aircraft during the next two years.

Murri explains Southwest saw limitations in air-to-ground connectivity, and instead opted for Row 44's satellite-based system. He also highlights Aircell has more control over price and wants to own the customer relationship. He notes that scenario is not dissimilar from the Airphone model of the past.

Row 44 on the other hand, supplies Southwest more of a "wholesale model" says Murri. "We control the pricing and marketing."

Highlighting usage statistics Murri says more than 25,000 Southwest passengers have used the carrier's inflight connectivity offering on more than 1,500 flights. The bulk of those users are accessing email "first and foremost", says Murri.

The system has exceeded Southwest's expectations, particularly in the area of streaming video.

Southwest is studying several revenue options for its connectivity offering including pay-as-you go, subscription models and offering the service as the time of ticket purchase.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news