Southwest to begin testing in-flight Wi-Fi


Southwest Airlines, a pioneer in no-frills flying, said Monday it will begin testing in-flight Wi-Fi Internet.
The Fort Worth-based airline said a satellite-based system has been installed on one aircraft and will be turned on Monday. Three more planes will be equipped with the service by early March.

Operated by Westlake Village, Calif.-based technology firm Row 44, the new Wi-Fi system will be tested for “the next few months,” the company said.

“Internet connectivity has been high on our list of priorities for quite some time,” says Dave Ridley, senior vice president of marketing for Southwest Airlines, in a statement.

The Internet service, which is available to passengers with their own Wi-Fi enabled laptops or smartphones, will be free during the test period. Southwest didn’t specify what the charge will be once the test period ends.

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But in an interview with USA Today late last year, Row 44’s CEO John Guidon said its service will cost less than $10 a day. “Everybody is hoping for a low price. Row 44 agrees and we can provide low price,” he said.

Southwest has also partnered with Yahoo to offer an in-flight homepage with “destination-relevant content,” including a flight tracker and local news. The flight tracker will allow passengers to view fly-over points of interest along the route, with images from Flickr.

Southwest joins several domestic competitors already offering in-flight Internet on a limited basis, including American Airlines, Virgin America and Delta Air Lines. JetBlue also offers a text/e-mail service on one aircraft.

But Southwest is the only airline using satellites to deploy its service, which will allow Internet connection to remain turned on when the aircraft is flying over water. Other carriers, which are working with Chicago-based Aircell, use ground cellular towers to beam transmission, and their connection is available only when flying over land.

“We believe the aircraft-to-satellite technology is the most robust solution in the industry,” Ridley says.

The previous generation of in-flight Wi-Fi, operated by Connexion by Boeing, was shut off at the end of 2006. Its satellite-based system proved to be too expensive for domestic carriers, and Connexion couldn’t find enough passenger demand for the $30-a-flight service.

Still, customers and airlines’ interest in affordable in-flight Wi-Fi persisted, leading to several technology companies vying for the business.

Guidon said in December that Row 44’s equipment is cheaper and easier to install than Connexion’s system.