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Carriers say time is right to reconnect with Web

Cheaper and lighter equipment is making in-flight Internet service more viable.

June 17, 2008|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Web surfing in the sky is poised to take off again.

Nearly two years after Boeing Co. pulled the plug on the airline industry's first attempt at connecting passengers to the Internet, airlines are trying once again to offer the ability to browse websites and e-mail during flights.

Several airlines are now planning to conduct tests of a new generation of wireless Internet equipment this summer despite facing fuel-induced financial woes, saying the fee-based service could provide much needed extra revenues.

The latest efforts would bring back Web surfing on airplanes, which continues to be one of the few places where the Internet has been kept at bay.

"We are full speed ahead," said Steve Jarvis, vice president of marketing and customer service experience for Alaska Airlines, which hopes to begin offering the service to its passengers this fall.

The fee for a wireless Internet connection is likely to be no more than $10 depending on the length of the flight, Jarvis said. Passengers would need a laptop with wireless capability to access the Internet during flight.

American Airlines, the nation's largest carrier, has been testing a system made by Aircell that provides an Internet connection through ground-based cellular towers, and is hoping to start letting some passengers test the service this summer.

Southwest Airlines Co. is looking at a system that uses satellites to connect to the Internet, and in-flight entertainment equipment makers such as Panasonic Avionics Corp. and Thales Avionics Inc., both in Orange County, have been pitching similar satellite-based systems to several airlines.

"We're seeing a lot of interest," said Chuck Albright, a product marketing manager for Panasonic Avionics, a Lake Forest-based subsidiary of the giant Japanese electronics maker. "We're hearing from the marketplace that it may be the time."

The Internet systems in the works won't include the ability to use cellphones, which are currently banned during flight because of concerns that cellular signals could interfere with the plane's electronic equipment. In addition, airlines would still have to decide whether to allow Internet-based telephone and video-conferencing.

Amy Cravens, contributing analyst for Internet research firm MultiMedia Intelligence, said several factors were helping revive airline interest in equipping planes with online capabilities.

Since Boeing terminated its Connexion Internet system in late 2006, several companies have been quietly developing a new generation of equipment that is significantly cheaper and lighter.

At the same time, wireless Internet use, particularly using hand-held devices such as Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry, has proliferated and business and leisure travelers expect online access wherever they go.

"They were ahead of the time," Cravens said of Boeing's satellite-based Internet system. "They came up with a very robust system but it was too expensive and there wasn't the demand."

Chicago-based Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company, had hoped to use its know-how in satellite communications to offer in-flight Internet service to airlines.

But after sinking more than $1 billion into development, few passengers were willing to pay the $30 connection fee. After several international carriers began offering the service on a handful of long-haul flights, Boeing pulled the plug on the program in late 2006, saying the business didn't appear to be financially viable.

Boeing's system, which included a six-foot, surf-board-like antenna attached to the top of the plane's fuselage, was estimated to weigh about 1,000 pounds. The weight of the new equipment, including the antenna and the wireless modem -- has dropped to no more than 150 pounds. The antennas for American's Internet system are about the size of a large Starbucks coffee cup.

In addition to American, Richard Branson's new Virgin America airline is looking at installing Aircell's equipment on its planes.

Alaska is working with Westlake Village-based Row 44 to offer a service that relies on satellites that beam signals to an airplane's antenna to provide a connection for passengers with wireless-enabled laptops or BlackBerrys.

Because of the latest advances in microchips and other technology, the equipment would also cost significantly less -- as little as $200,000 compared with about $500,000 for Connexion.

It also takes a day or two to install the new equipment on planes compared with a week or more for Connexion.

Providing Internet service to passengers could become a "revenue generator rather than an expense, which is appealing to airlines struggling with high fuel costs," Cravens said.

In a research report on in-flight Internet unveiled last week, Cravens estimated that revenues from the Internet service could jump to more than $1 billion annually for the airlines by 2012. But the growth could be damped if fuel costs continue to rise and airlines cut back on services.

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