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WiFi returning to airlines

Recession-battered carriers believe they'll get a modest revenue boost from fees for the wireless Internet service.

May 16, 2009|Peter Pae

After a three-year hiatus, airlines are bringing back wireless Internet service on planes, allowing business travelers to check their e-mails, browse the Web and log into their corporate networks while in flight.

There hasn't been in-flight Internet access since Boeing Co. killed a very expensive, multibillion-dollar project to wire planes all over the world with a satellite-based system.

Now several smaller Internet companies have come up with cheaper systems that apparently are working well enough for airlines to jump back in. Earlier this week, AirTran Airways, which has six departures a day at Los Angeles International Airport, said it would equip all of its 136 planes with Wi-Fi by the end of July.

The nation's largest carriers, Delta Air Lines, which operates more than 1,000 planes; and American Airlines, with more than 600 jets, are rolling the service out over the next year.

With the slump in travel, airlines see the service as a way to make up for shrinking revenues. Under American's system, passengers can begin accessing the Internet with their laptops, smart phones and hand-held PDAs once the plane reaches 10,000 feet.

The fee will be $12.95 for flights longer than three hours and $9.95 for shorter flights. Users of hand-held devices will be charged $7.95 regardless of flight time.

Virgin America has also begun offering wireless Internet service on flights between Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., as well as on all flights to Boston. The airline expects to have Internet access on all its flights by summer.

The fees are similar to American's, but there also is a red-eye special of $5.95.

Leave home without it

U.S. airlines made more than $1 billion last year from fees on checked baggage -- more than double the year before -- and they're hiking the fees even more.

United Airlines, the first major carrier to charge for checked luggage, a service that had long been included in the price of a ticket, said this week it was raising the fee by $5, to $20 for the first bag and $30 for the second. Travelers who prepay online will be charged the current fee. The increase takes effect for domestic flights beginning June 10 and applies to economy tickets bought on or after May 14.

The United hike follows that of US Airways, which is increasing bag fees by $5 for those who don't prepay on its website. In July, Delta Air Lines, the world's largest carrier and one of the busiest at LAX, will begin charging international passengers a $50 fee to check a second bag. The fee is the first on overseas flights by a major U.S. airline.

The extra revenues from bag fees have softened the blow of losing billions of dollars in the aftermath of high fuel prices last summer and the downturn in travel that began last fall, particularly among business customers.

With more airlines adding or hiking bag fees, revenues could exceed $3.5 billion this year, according to Airline Information, a Miami management consulting firm.

Free flights Down Under?

The number of visitors to Australia is plummeting, so much so that a travel industry group there has come up with a novel enticement: free flights for foreign visitors who agree to spend lots of money at Aussie hotels, restaurants and attractions.

It's just an idea for the moment and there is no indication it's gaining any traction from the Australian government, which would have to foot the bill for the plane tickets. South Dakota launched a similar initiative during the fuel hike last year, offering $50 gas vouchers for visitors to that state.

But Australia's "Mayday Project" -- to signify the country's economic distress -- has had "significant interest from travelers from the U.S., and particularly from the West Coast," said Steve Cusworth, commercial director for Sydney-based Independent Tourism Holdings Inc., a consortium of travel industry companies that is pushing the initiative.

"People are latching on to this."

So far the Australian government has been mum.

"I think the concept was thrown up to the government but there hasn't been any commitment or anything like that," said Amanda Bolger, spokeswoman for V Australia, an airline started by British billionaire Richard Branson that began flying between Australia and LAX in February.

Carry-ons . . . American Airlines passengers can now use frequent-flier miles to book one-way tickets at half the round-trip mileage rate. . . . San Francisco International Airport is looking at building a hotel with small sleeping pods for international travelers on long layovers. . . . The fare war for flights between Orange County's John Wayne Airport and San Francisco International Airport has escalated, with American dropping its one-way fare to $42 after Virgin America started with $49, followed by Southwest at $45.

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peter.pae@latimes.com

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