Alaska Airlines – another first?

If you’d ask a group of passengers if cell-phone calls should be allowed on flights, you would receive instant protest. No one wants to sit next to a chatterbox teenager or, worse, an angry business man with a bluetooth for a five hour flight. You ask about WiFi, however, and you would receive instant excitment. Emails, surfing, news, chatting — Americans want to be connected.

As the airline biz gets increasingly competitive, is inflight Internet access the next competitive edge? Alaska Airlines thinks so:

Alaska Airlines today announced it plans to launch inflight wireless Internet service next year based on Row 44’s satellite-based broadband connectivity solution. Alaska made the announcement in Toronto at the 28th Annual World Airline Entertainment Association Conference and Exhibition. The airline will test Row 44’s system on a next-generation Boeing 737 aircraft in spring 2008 and, based on the trial’s outcome, plans to equip its 114-aircraft fleet.

The technology will provide customers with a unique entertainment and business network at 35,000 feet. Passengers with Wi-Fi-enabled devices, such as laptop computers, PDAs, smartphones and portable gaming systems, will have high-speed access to the Internet, e-mail, virtual private networks and stored inflight entertainment content.

“Bringing broadband Internet access to the skies is one of the most important things we can do to enhance the experience of both business and leisure customers,” said Steve Jarvis, Alaska Airlines’ vice president of sales, marketing and customer experience. “We’re moving ahead with testing and ultimately plan to bring wireless broadband to our whole fleet.”

Unlike air-to-ground services, Row 44’s satellite-based system is designed to function over land, water and across international borders, enabling service throughout Alaska’s route system in Alaska, the Lower 48 states, Hawaii, Canada and Mexico.

Customers connect to the system through wireless hotspots installed inside the aircraft cabin. A light-weight radome mounted on top of the aircraft houses an antenna, which receives and transmits signals through the Ku-band satellite system.

Alaska plans to become the first US airline with such connectivity, although American and Virgin America are planning similar services through an air-to-ground platform provided by AirCell. Row 44’s system will rely on high-earth-orbit satellites, providing continuous coverage in remote areas and over water (it is Alaska Airlines, after all). Both systems can be easily installed in short sessions, lessening the aircraft down-time.

Alaska has a history of innovation. They were the first North American airline to offer online ticketing (1995) and online check-in (1999). Oh, and they paint salmon on some of their planes. Cool.

If history is our guide, similar in-flight Internet platforms will be picked up by other carriers in short-order. The WSJ (subcription-only) mentions that Southwest is considering the service. And the always active rumor-mill at is predicting a big JetBlue announcement in October (inflight Internet, perhaps?).