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TRAVEL BRIEFCASE

Airlines racing to install in-flight Wi-Fi service

They're betting it will attract business travelers who will gladly pay a fee to check their e-mail while airborne.

September 05, 2009|Hugo Martin and Nathan Olivarez Giles

Seven dollars for a pillow and blanket on JetBlue. Twenty-five dollars to book a flight by phone or in person with Delta. Twenty-five dollars to send an unaccompanied minor on Southwest.

Airlines are requiring fees of all kinds. And now comes a charge that the airlines hope won't make you cringe: an in-flight wireless Internet connection fee.

The race is on among the nation's largest airlines to install the circuitry that lets passengers go wireless while jetting 35,000 feet above the ground.

Southwest Airlines announced last month that it was moving ahead with plans to install satellite-enabled broadband on its entire fleet by early next year. It is using Row 44, a private technology firm in Westlake Village. Southwest has yet to announce a pricing plan for the service.

Last month, Delta, the world's largest airline, announced that it had installed Wi-Fi in more than 70% of its domestic fleet. American Airlines also announced in August that it had installed Wi-Fi in 100 MD-80 planes, with plans to install the service on an additional 50 airplanes by the end of the year.

What makes airlines believe that passengers will fork over as much as $12.95 to check e-mail, update their Facebook status and tweet about their weekend plans?

A new survey by the Wi-Fi industry suggests that most business travelers will pick an airline with Wi-Fi service over flights with meal service, free movies or convenient arrival time.

The survey, commissioned by the Wi-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit industry group, found that 76% of the 480 frequent business travelers interviewed would choose an airline based on the availability of in-flight Internet service.

More than 70% of those surveyed would choose an airline with Wi-Fi over one that provided meal service, and 55% said they would shift their flight by one day if it meant getting the in-flight service, according to the survey.

But so far, passengers are not using airborne Wi-Fi in such high percentages.

On Virgin America, the first U.S. airline to offer Wi-Fi throughout its fleet, 10% to 15% of passengers pay for the service. On transcontinental flights, up to 25% of passengers take the service, according to airline representatives.

Virgin uses Wi-Fi services by Aircell, an Illinois company that provides mobile broadband for eight airlines.

Most airlines with Internet service offer a Wi-Fi price schedule that increases with the length of the flight. Aircell pricing ranges from $5.95 for flights lasting 90 minutes or less to $12.95 for flights longer than three hours.

JetBlue, on the other hand, plans to offer free e-mail and instant-messaging services on 20 of its Airbus A320 planes beginning later this year.

Kelley Davis-Felner, marketing director for the Wi-Fi Alliance, said the survey's results made one thing clear: "Staying connected is a thing that business workers are comfortable paying for."

But other observers believe that it may just be a matter of time before market forces prompt airlines to offer free Wi-Fi, at least for frequent fliers.

"As more and more services get introduced on airlines, will they be able to sustain the Wi-Fi fee?" asked Michael W. McCormick, executive director of the National Business Travelers Assn. "There will be continued pressure on airlines to offer it as a core service."

Reclining seats for business fliers

After you've checked your e-mail using its in-flight Wi-Fi, Delta thinks you might want to take a nap.

The Atlanta airline announced last month that it would soon offer business-class passenger seats that recline almost flat on all its New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco flights, joining competitors United Airlines and Virgin America in offering the airborne lounging seats.

For the really long hauls from New York's JFK Airport to London's Heathrow Airport, Delta will offer fully flat beds and up to 82 inches of legroom in the BusinessElite cabins. The fully flat beds will also be available on flights from Atlanta and Detroit to London.

United and Virgin America also offer reclining seats on flights between the East and West coasts.

The airline industry has not come up with a universally accepted name for such seats. Maybe "soar and snore" seats?

A high-tech trap for towel thieves

Next time you're tempted to sneak a hotel towel or bedsheet into your suitcase, think twice.

A company out of Florida has developed a device to pinpoint the location of every towel, sheet and pillowcase in a hotel.

The Linen Tracker service uses thumb-size radio-frequency identification tags, sewn into hotel linen, to keep an accurate linen inventory and determine when a sheet or towel needs to be replaced.

Antennas that read the devices can be placed in hotel laundry rooms and stockrooms to determine how often a towel has been washed and how many sheets and pillowcases are in a stockroom's shelves, said William Serbin, executive vice president for Linen Technology Tracking. Serbin says hotels typically lose about 5% of their linen stock per month.

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