Southwest Tests Inflight Broadband

Feb 11, 2009
By Darren Shannon

Southwest Airlines as expected has started passenger trials of an inflight broadband service from Row 44 that should continue for several months.

“Internet connectivity has been high on our list of priorities for quite some time,” said Senior VP of Marketing and Revenue Management Dave Ridley. “We believe the aircraft-to-satellite technology is the most robust solution in the industry, and we look forward to the feedback from our customers.”

Both Alaska Airlines and Southwest have chosen to test Row 44’s satellite-based system over other connectivity systems, but have been limited to ground and non-revenue flights trials while awaiting Federal Communications Commission approval to operate revenue services equipped with Row 44’s external hardware.

Southwest’s non-revenue flight tests included as many as 60 staff from the airline and Row 44, according to the broadband provider. Initial results are positive, Row 44 President and Co-founder Gregg Fialcowitz told The DAILY.

Although the FCC has still to issue a supplemental type certificate for Row 44’s external hardware, such as the antenna, the trials have been permitted under a temporary license. “We are conducting our trials under a temporary authorization from the FCC in conjunction with [U.S. aerospace manufacturer] Hughes,” noted Fialcowitz.

“The authorization will last until summer, by which time we expect to have our permanent license from the FCC,” he added.

Southwest’s revenue flight trials — which will offer passengers free access to the Internet — began Feb. 10 on aircraft 901. This Boeing 737 started the day at Dallas Love Field, and operated a normal schedule to Houston, Corpus Christi, Texas, and back to Houston, before flying to Little Rock, Ark., then Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, California’s Orange County and finally Oakland, Calif.

The aircraft is scheduled today to operate from Oakland to Ontario, California and onto Phoenix and San Diego before returning to Oakland. The aircraft will then serve Orange County and Phoenix before returning again to Oakland. The final segment will overnight the narrowbody in Phoenix.

Southwest plans to test the Row 44 broadband system on four aircraft by early March. No specific timeline is given for the program, although both Row 44 and Southwest said it should be “several months.”

Alaska late last year started its own non-revenue flight and ground trials on one 737, but had to return the aircraft to revenue service. This was placed back in non-revenue flight trials earlier this month, and should be placed in revenue service “very soon,” said an airline spokeswoman.

A second Alaska 737 could be retrofitted with Row 44’s internal and external hardware.

Southwest’s has also teamed with Yahoo! to offer its passengers an inflight homepage that includes a flight tracker as well as daily news and information updates. The flight tracker will allow passengers to follow the plane’s flight path, and offer “fly-over” images provided by Flickr.

Photo: Boeing

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