United Airlines has started to equip its Boeing 757s for in-flight wireless broadband services and is planning installations for its entire fleet, writes Mary Kirby.

The carrier says it has “jump-started the process” by seeking US Federal Aviation Administration approvals to add equipment for Wi-Fi services.

Last year, US airborne telephony provider Verizon Airfone and United were the first to receive FAA supplemental type certificates (STC) to install the necessary cabin equipment to enable the use of Wi-Fi devices on board domestic commercial aircraft while in-flight. The approval applied to United’s 757-200s.

Airfone initially participated in the US Federal Communications Commission’s recent auction of air-to-ground spectrum, but withdrew, and its competitor AirCell won the exclusive 3MHz licence to provide wireless broadband services on commercial aircraft, which are being targeted for 2007.

United says it is “not appropriate to talk about other trials”, adding the carrier is “evaluating several systems” for offering broadband service domestically over an air-to ground link, and internationally through a satellite link. “The approval we got [from the FAA] was to start adding Wi-Fi equipment for air-to-ground,” says United.

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

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

AirCell was unavailable for comment.

Source: Flight International