DALLAS: American Airlines is currently in talks with in-flight connectivity partner Gogo about offering the upgraded, higher-speed ATG-4 option, but is carefully weighing the cost of the endeavour as the carrier concludes not every route warrants an equal level of connectivity speed.
Gogo unveiled its solution to sluggish inflight connectivity speeds in late 2011 through the air-to-ground (ATG)-4 service that claims to improve Internet speeds during flight by four times their current levels. Gogo is accomplishing this through the addition of a directional antenna, dual modem and EV-DO Rev A technologies. Virgin America is the launch customer for the product.
The ATG-4 platform also allows customers to upgrade their existing Gogo offering through what Gogo has deemed as low cost retrofits.
American was the first US carrier to offer Gogo’s air-to-ground in-flight connectivity offering domestically three years ago when Wi-Fi access on board aircraft was more novelty than common place. Now in-flight entertainment pioneer Virgin America offers connectivity fleet-wide and Delta Air Lines features Wi-Fi on all of its aircraft with more than 70-seats. Other Gogo customers include Alaska Airlines, Air Canada, Frontier, United and US Airways, which is embarking on a project to expand Wi-Fi from its Airbus A321 aircraft to its entire A320 family fleet and Embraer E-Jet aircraft.
Dallas-based American offers in-flight connectivity on 93 Boeing 737 narrowbodies, 185 of its MD-80s and its 15 767-200s. The carrier has stated its intent to expand in-flight connectivity to nearly all of its aircraft flying in the continental US, and expects to offer Wi-Fi on 400 of its planes by year-end. American was not as aggressive as rival Delta in equipping the majority of its fleet with Wi-Fi capability, but nonetheless the carrier is not blind to the competitive disadvantage created by having an extensive connectivity offering. “We think it is a key product attribute for American Airlines,” company managing director of onboard products Alice Liu told the APEX editor’s blog at the carrier’s Dallas headquarters.
The airline is definitely talking with Gogo about ATG-4, but at the same time Liu concludes not every single route in the carrier’s network warrants the enhanced offering. “Certainly from Dallas to Austin the take rate is not high enough to even consider ATG-4,” she remarks. “But certainly there are some routes that have much higher take rates where it would make sense. So I think the question is how do we make the proper investment accordingly.”
Liu explains that American is in constant discussion with Gogo in planning what its connectivity offering will look like in the next 12 months versus the next five years.
But American’s relationship with Gogo five years from now remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. The carrier marks another connectivity milestone in December of this year when it becomes the first US airline to offer Wi-Fi internationally with the debut of its new 777-300ER on flights from Dallas to Sao Paulo. The carrier is offering Wi-Fi capability on all its 777 aircraft including the 10 new-delivery -300ERs and will also eventually feature connectivity on its long-haul fleet of 47 777-200ERs.
The December launch of the 777-300ER is fast approaching, and American confirms that its goal is offering satellite connectivity onboard the new long-haul aircraft from day one, says Liu.
Pressed about the connectivity supplier, she estimates more details regarding its transoceanic Wi-Fi plans should be available during the next few months, noting the carrier does not always immediately disclose suppliers it is working with for competitive reasons. “I’m sure other airlines would love to know who our supplier is,” Liu quips.
At the same time she acknowledges that “any kind of satellite equipment is very expensive” whether it supports Ku or Ka-band coverage. Gogo has stated its target of offering Ku-band system installation for carriers as the fourth quarter of this year, which is within the window for American’s 777-300ER launch.
But American could easily switch its allegiance from Gogo to another provider for long-haul Wi-Fi. Star Alliance member Lufthansa already offers Ku-band high speed connectivity supplied by Panasonic Avionics on a portion of its long-haul fleet, and expects to complete installation on its transoceanic aircraft by year-end.
Regardless of which company emerges as the victor in American’s long-haul connectivity evaluations, speed continues to be key as in-flight Wi-Fi becomes more prevalent and the industry evolves to accomodate seat-back IFE, streaming content from onboard services to passenger laptops, tablets and smart phones, and inflight connectivity.
American last year was the first carrier offer streaming content to passengers for use on their personal electronic devices through the Gogo Vision product, and features the streaming option on its 767-200s used primarily on transcontinental flights.
Liu says a key element for streaming content is how fast the technology can evolve to support the volume of use, noting a streaming offering needs to “interact just as well if not better than the in-seat system”.
No one can accurately predict how the dynamics of in-flight entertainment and connectivity will evolve as Liu remarks, “What does it all mean? It will be interesting to see during the next five years where this industry will go.”