In-flight Wi-Fi rolling out everywhere, and fast

FROM YAHOO TECH BLOG: CHRISTOPHER NULL

It saddens me that I have still not flown on an airplane with in-flight Wi-Fi. Every time I’m on a flight that is supposed to have Wi-Fi, either a different plane is in service, or that particular leg is simply wireless-less, no explanation offered.

That said, I appear to be in an ever-shrinking minority.

Despite tough economic times, U.S. airlines are working night and day to outfit their planes with in-flight wireless access. Virgin America recently finished upgrading its 28-plane fleet, making it the first airline to offer Wi-Fi on every plane in service. Delta says it’s passed the 100-plane mark, with 40 percent of flights now wireless, and American says it will have 150 planes outfitted by the end of the year.

Even podunk airlines like AirTran are installing the system, and the penny-pinchers at Southwest have started experimenting with in-flight wireless, too. One writer even posits that by 2011, in-flight Wi-Fi will be an expected amenity on all flights.

The question now is the same as it ever was: Will people pay for it? When Boeing’s Connexion service originally rolled out (mainly overseas), it was heralded as the Next Best Thing but ultimately failed completely. Why? Even if they found a plane that offered it, no one used it, and airlines who were testing the service ultimately deemed it a terrible investment. The service was scrapped by Boeing shortly thereafter.

But the travel industry has changed since then, and customers are now used to paying for everything a la carte on flights, from meals to movies to fees for each piece of baggage checked. With the environment altered, this is actually a good sign for the wireless business, as travelers are more likely than ever to pay the $8 to $13 charge for a flight’s worth of web access. And the airlines seem to be responding to that, otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing the rapid rollouts we have going on today.

It’s also a sign of the times about how critical Wi-Fi has become for your average traveler. Just how important is it? In one recent study (keep in mind it was sponsored by American Airlines and HP), 47 percent of business travelers said that Wi-Fi in airports important, more than the number who cited the importance of having food available.

What about you? Would you rarther surf the web or eat a Cinnabon?

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