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AirTran to Offer WiFi on All Flights


In a bid to win over Internet-savvy travelers, AirTran Airways this summer will become the first large U.S. airline to offer wireless Internet access on every flight nationwide.

AirTran plans to have all 136 of its Boeing 737 and 717 jets equipped with in-flight wireless service by late July, CEO Bob Fornaro said Monday.

For a fee, the Orlando-based, low-fare carrier will offer Wi-Fi for passengers' wireless-enabled laptops, smartphones and personal digital assistants. The airline plans to make the announcement today.

AirTran began equipping its jets last month at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, its largest hub airport. Fornaro would not divulge the size of AirTran's investment or the revenue it could generate from the service.

"We think this is going to become a necessity" for airlines, Fornaro said. "Some carriers have it on some flights. We're going to offer passengers certainty, and I think that will give us a leg up."

Airborne wireless service is gaining traction across the airline industry, which is going from experimentation to installation as it searches for new sources of revenue and a competitive edge.

AirTran's decision to put it in fleetwide could accelerate adoption of the new service, which lets fliers access the Web from a handheld device or laptop for $7.95 to $12.95 a flight, depending on the device and the length of the flight.

According to Aircell, the Chicago-based provider of the Gogo wireless service, more than 1,000 jets from several North American carriers will be Wi-Fi-equipped by year's end, up from about 30 at the end of 2008.

"That will be a huge sea change," says Aircell CEO Jack Blumenstein.

He says a typical narrow-body jet can be equipped with the 125 pounds of necessary equipment and fiber-optic cable during an overnight stay at an airport for about $100,000.

Once it's installed, air passengers will see a pop-up on their laptop, smartphone or PDA screen at 10,000 feet and connect to the Web through Gogo by providing their credit card information.

Other carriers are at various stages of adoption. San Francisco-based start-up Virgin America says it will have Wi-Fi service on all 28 of its planes by May 25.

Several of the USA's biggest carriers, including No. 1 Delta Air Lines and No. 2 American Airlines, have begun equipping their fleets with Wi-Fi but won't be able to guarantee it on every domestic flight for some time.

Delta said Monday that it has equipped 139 - or about half - of its domestic jetliners and expects to have all 300 full-size domestic jets equipped by September, but Delta's large regional jet fleet will not be.

In June, Delta will start selling Wi-Fi passes that are good for a month. Delta acquired Northwest Airlines last year, and 200 old Northwest jets will be undergoing installation next year.

American said in March it planned to equip more than 300 of its narrow-body domestic jets with Gogo wireless during the next couple years.

Since August, American has tested wireless service on 15 wide-body Boeing 767s used on transcontinental flights and now plans to install Gogo on its narrow-body fleet.

United Airlines and Air Canada also have plans to begin installing Wi-Fi capability later this year.

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