Major airlines are scrounging for every dollar now that fewer people are flying amid the economic downturn, yet the carriers have been slow to install in-flight wireless Internet access across their fleets that could generate millions in fees.
Cost, technology and passengers' willingness to pay for the service are issues some of the carriers are dealing with. Others say it simply takes time to install the necessary equipment to allow fliers to surf the Internet and send e-mail from their laptops and PDAs from the comfort of their seats.
"They're trying to appeal to customers who they think will choose an airline based on the ubiquitous use of Wi-Fi onboard aircraft," said Robert Mann, an aviation consultant in Port Washington, N.Y. "The risk in making these product announcements is that you're not going to have the product."
Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines, a unit of AMR Corp., have both stated plans to install Wi-Fi onboard 300 or more aircraft, though Delta has installed it on roughly 130 aircraft as of Friday and won't reach its original goal of having the remaining domestic mainline planes retrofitted by the end of June. American has the service on 15 aircraft and its plan calls for the work on the remaining planes to be spread over a couple years.
United Airlines, a unit of UAL Corp., currently doesn't have Wi-Fi available on any of its aircraft, a spokeswoman said. It plans to have the service available on 13 aircraft in the second half of this year.
"Hopefully, we'll get really good at it (the installation process) and it will be faster, but I don't think anyone wanted to make a boastful date promise like some others have done," American spokesman Tim Smith said.
Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton said her carrier's "initial ramp up was a little slower than anticipated." She said the world's biggest airline operator is on track to complete the installations on Delta's domestic mainline fleet this fall. Even then, it will include only 300-plus aircraft. Delta doesn't expect to have Wi Fi on board all of Northwest Airlines' domestic mainline aircraft until the end of 2010. The carrier hasn't announced plans to add the service to aircraft used by its regional subsidiaries or international aircraft.
"We think that this will be most valuable to customers when it reaches a critical mass, which is why we have committed to broad implementation," Talton said.
Continental Airlines said early last year that it planned to introduce onboard Wi-Fi services on flights operating within the continental U.S. at the beginning of 2009. A spokeswoman did not respond to an e-mail Friday seeking an update on the status of Continental's rollout.
Cost versus benefit also is an issue the airlines face.
Some airlines charge up to $12.95 to use the service on flights, depending on the length of the flight and the type of device the passenger is using.
None of the carriers will say how much it exactly costs to install the hardware necessary to make Wi-Fi work on their aircraft. But Smith said that American expects it to cost millions of dollars to retrofit 300 planes.