By Mary Kirby in Philadelphia

United Airlines has started to equip its Boeing 757 aircraft with hardware for inflight wireless broadband (wi-fi) services, and is planning installations for its entire fleet.

United says the carrier has “jump-started the process” by seeking US Federal Aviation Administration approvals to add equipment for wi-fi services “so that our service is available that much quicker to offer for our customers”.

Last year, US airborne telephony provider Verizon Airfone and United claimed the distinction of becoming the first companies to receive FAA supplemental type certificate (STC) to install the necessary cabin equipment to enable passenger and crew use of wi-fi devices on board a domestic commercial aircraft while inflight. The approval applied to the cabin of United’s 757-200 aircraft.

Airfone participated in the US Federal Communications Commission’s recent auction of air-to-ground spectrum, but it withdrew early in the proceedings. Its competitor AirCell won the exclusive 3MHz license to provide wireless broadband services on commercial aircraft, which is being targeted for 2007.

United declines to discuss whether the carrier is working with AirCell, and says it is “not appropriate to talk about other trials”.

United says it is “evaluating several systems” for offering broadband service domestically over an air-to ground link, and internationally through a satellite link.

However, initial installations will support air-to-ground wi-fi service. “The approval we got [from the FAA] was to start adding wi-fi equipment for air-to-ground,” notes United.

A customer of Airfone’s seat-back telephones, and a former user of Airfone’s defunct narrowband JetConnect service, United has “not made any decision as to what we’re doing with” the telephones, adds the carrier.

Airfone late last month announced it will cease its seat-back phone service onboard commercial airline flights by the end of the year.

AirCell could not be immediately reached for comment.

Source: Flight International