DALLAS — American Airlines plans to expand Internet access to about half its fleet of aircraft over the next two years as it attempts to raise revenue and improve customer service.
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The company said Tuesday it will install flying Wi-Fi hot spots on about 300 planes used in the continental U.S. and charge up to $12.95 for browsing the Web, sending e-mail or connecting with corporate VPN sites.
American has been testing in-flight Internet service for several months on 15 planes. The airline declined to give figures on usage during the test, but an American technology executive called the response positive.
"American Airlines is a very financially driven airline," said the executive, Doug Backelin. "We are especially careful in how we're spending, but this is a good strategic investment, something our customers will value."
AMR Corp.'s American is one of several U.S. carriers getting into Internet service. Delta Air Lines Inc., the world's largest airline operator, plans a quicker rollout, from 77 planes currently to more than 300 late this year and more than 500 by the end of 2010.
Both airlines will use the Gogo service from Aircell. American will add access to many of its McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series aircraft beginning this year and on new Boeing 737-800 jets as it receives them.
Aircell sets the prices and shares revenue with the airline, although neither company would discuss their financial arrangement.
Prices will range from $5.95 for some redeye flights to $7.95 for using a handheld device, $9.95 for using a laptop computer on a flight up to three hours, and $12.95 for using a laptop on a longer flight. Aircell plans to add other prices for day passes and perhaps monthly subscription rates for frequent fliers.
Travelers can sign up on the ground and connect once the plane reaches 10,000 feet in altitude. They'll use their browser to connect to Aircell's Gogo portal site.
In theory, if enough passengers are online at the same time the speed of the service would degrade. Aircell Chief Executive Jack Blumenstein said that mass hasn't been reached on any trial flights. Each plane will be outfitted with three overlapping Wi-Fi signals, he said.
Backelin said the Internet access will be filtered to block pornographic sites — the airline at first said it wouldn't do that, but relented after hearing complaints from customers and flight attendants. And American won't allow voice-over-Internet phone service, to keep chattering to a minimum.
In customer surveys, Backelin said, "there was a very loud chorus telling us, 'Do not allow voice-over-IP calls in the cabin."'
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