Southwest plans fleet-wide Wi-Fi, faces challenge to ‘get the price right’

Southwest will equip its entire fleet with Wi-Fi, the carrier announced Friday. The carrier says via its corporate blog that it will begin installing Wi-Fi on its aircraft this spring and hopes to have its entire fleet of about 540 jets outfitted with the service “by early 2012.”

The Chicago Tribune notes Southwest’s decision to Wi-Fi fleet wide comes after “dabbling with the concept for two years.” Still, The Dallas Morning NewsAirline Biz blog notes “a 2012 completion will leave Southwest toward the rear of U.S. airlines that are installing Wi-Fi capabilities on their aircraft. Among major carriers, low-fare competitor AirTran Airways finished installing of Aircell’s Gogo technology on its entire fleet in mid 2009, for example.”

As for pricing, how will Southwest’s Wi-Fi stack up to its rivals? “We don’t have an answer to that quite yet,” Dave Ridley, Southwest’s senior vice president for marketing and revenue management, says on the company’s blog. “We’re still testing a variety of price points on the four aircraft that currently have wi-fi.  We’ll have a decision on price in the second quarter of 2010.”

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The Tribune writes “getting the price right is especially important for Southwest, which built its reputation on low fares and the concept that it doesn’t nickel-and-dime customers. And while Southwest primarily operates short- to medium-length flights, survey data show that passenger interest in Web service is greatest on longer trips, (Forrester Research travel analyst Henry) Harteveldt said.”

Southwest is partnering with California-based Row 44 to provide the service. The Los Angeles Times calls the deal “a tremendous boost for the small, 25-employee firm, which had been in a testing phase with Southwest since last year. … Row 44, named after the last row on a DC-10 commercial jet, uses a network of telecommunications satellites belonging to Hughes Network Systems.”

The Dallas Morning News notes Row 44’s “larger rival, Aircell LLC, uses ground-based transmitters on its Gogo system, which is being used by such carriers as American Airlines Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc.”

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