January 26, 2013, 7:13 AM — United Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to offer satellite-based Wi-Fi on long-haul international flights after it added Ku-band satellite Wi-Fi from Panasonic Avionics to a Boeing 747. The Wi-Fi-equipped plane serves trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights; United has also added satellite Wi-Fi to two Airbus 380 aircraft that serve U.S. domestic routes.
United plans to offer a two-tiered Wi-Fi service on international flights, charging between $4 and $15 for standard speed, and between $6 and $16 for accelerated connectivity. United did not provide the precise cost of the Wi-Fi service because the price depends on the length of your flight. It's not clear what kind of connection speeds standard and accelerated service offer, but United claims the service is faster than air-to-ground Wi-Fi currently available on domestic flights.
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United may be the first American carrier to activate international Wi-Fi, but it won't be the only U.S. carrier to offer the service for long. Delta plans to equip its long-haul aircraft with Ku-band satellite Wi-Fi in early 2013. Delta's service will be run by Gogo, a popular air-to-ground service provider that inked a deal with satellite operator SES in June to bring Gogo Wi-Fi to international flights. It's not clear whether Gogo will also run United's international Wi-Fi service. United currently runs its own ATG service on domestic flights, but also offers Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi for its premium service flights between New York and San Francisco, and New York and Los Angeles.
Internet in the skies
The beginning of long-haul Wi-Fi service is shaping up to be a big technology theme for airlines in 2013. Japan Airlines got a jump on the technology in June when it started offering in-flight Wi-Fi on routes between Tokyo and New York, and has since added its Tokyo-Los Angeles, Tokyo-Chicago, and Tokyo-Jakarta routes. The service is priced at $12 per hour or $22 for the entire flight. Japan's other international flight operator, All Nippon Airways, plans to add international Wi-Fi by mid-2013.
Air France KLM in February plans to start a year-long trial run of long-haul flight Wi-Fi on two Boeing 777-300 aircraft.
While many carriers are just getting into the international Wi-Fi game, others are getting out. Australian airline provider Qantas ended its trial program with international Wi-Fi in December, citing customer disinterest, according to The Age, an Australian daily.
United plans to add satellite-based Wi-Fi to 300 of its international and domestic aircraft by the end of 2013 including Airbus 319 and 320 aircraft, and Boeing 737, 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787 aircraft. Delta says it plans to add satellite-based Wi-Fi to its approximately 1,000 aircraft by 2015.
Once a bastion of relative silence and rest thanks to the absence of connectivity options, airplanes are becoming increasingly connected. Aircraft maker Boeing plans to make cellphone connectivity a standard part of its 747, 748 and 777 airplanes by the end of 2013. Boeing also offers similar connectivity options on Boeing 737 aircraft and 787 Dreamliner planes.
But while companies are getting ready for the in-flight connectivity revolution, regulators are moving at a much slower pace. The Federal Aviation Administration has yet to allow passengers to use electronics during landing and takeoff. Many experts criticize the FAA's claim that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals could interfere with aircraft equipment as dubious. The FAA in August said it would reconsider its ban on operating electronic devices below 10,000 feet, but would not consider allowing cellphone calls.
One set of people that won't be using personal electronics during flights are members of the cockpit crew. The FAA published a proposal on Tuesday that pilots would be prohibited from using personal electronics on the flight deck while an aircraft is operational. The prohibition wouldn't cover electronics such as iPads, which are used as part of flight operations. The FAA's proposal isn't a bad idea since you wouldn't want your pilots so engrossed in a game of Angry Birds they didn't pay attention to the plane. That's exactly what happened in 2009, when two Northwest pilots flew 150 miles past their destination because the flying aces were distracted by their laptops.