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June 25, 2008

American Airlines Previews Wi-Fi. But Skype Gets Blocked

Internet in flight
Filled with glee at the prospect of
working (and instant
messaging) onboard.

AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

Chances are you'd feel differently about all the new airline fees if you were getting something new for your money--especially if that something were to help ease the tedium of a long flight. Starting today, American Airlines will begin testing that premise with a sneak preview of Wi-Fi connectivity aboard two flights--one from JFK to LA and one in the return direction--allowing passengers to send and receive emails, download and send attachments, and surf the web while aloft.  If it works, American says it will roll out the service (possibly in a couple weeks) called Air Cell's "GoGo" on all of its 767-200s that fly on longer routes, such as New York to San Francisco, LA and Miami. Today's experiment will be free, but after that, the charge will be $12.95 per flight. 

One thing you will not be able to do is use internet voice services like Skype; those will be blocked, in keeping with the federal ban on phone calls. (In Europe, by contrast, inflight cell calls are permitted by law,  but not all airlines have the necessary hardware yet.) Otherwise, there are no limits on content. "It's exactly the same as if you were at a Wi-Fi hot spot at an airport or at your local Starbucks," says Americans Doug Backelin. He adds that the service will be able to handle a full planeload  of users. Eventually, it should be on most domestic flights--the service works only in the continental U.S. and so it won't be offered  on international routes.

American may be the first legacy airline to introduce Wi-Fi, but JetBlue has been testing a different service aboard a single plane since last December. And Virgin America says it will soon introduce the Air Cell service on all of its 15 A320s.

All business and first class seats in American's fleet have built-in power ports, and if you are consigned to a seat in coach, you can still plug in your laptop--power ports are scattered around the economy section . To find out where they are located,  look up the seat map for your plane.  More info on the Wi-Fi capability is available here and here.


If Skype isn't allowed although it offers instant messaging along with video and voice calling. What about all the other instant messenger clients that offer voice? like Gtalk, AIM, Yahoo and the like?

According to American Airlines, instant messaging is OK -- it's just the voice feature that's not.
We'll know more how it will really work after this week.

There is no federal ban on cell phone calls from aircraft, there is a ban from the FCC from using cell phones from aircraft. That ban is primarily to prevent fast moving cell phones from interfering with ground based cell sites that were not designed to handoff from site to site so quickly. Blocking VIOP ports sure sounds like a plan to protect the contract the airline has with the airphone service provider. I'm sure if we read that agreement it has some clear language that the airline will not provide access to completing services.

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