United Airlines plans to announce today that it is the first domestic airline to receive approval from regulators to install wireless Internet networks on its planes.
United passengers will not be able to take advantage of the service just yet. The airline is still at least a year away from having its in-flight Wi-Fi service up and running. When it does, sometime in mid- to late 2006, passengers will be able to check e-mail, send instant messages and surf the Web at 30,000 feet.
Similar services are already available on international flights operated by Lufthansa and Japan Airlines, among other carriers Wi-Fi is also available in terminals across the country. Many airports, like LaGuardia in New York, charge a flat daily rate to use a wireless Internet connection, while JetBlue Airways offers free Wi-Fi at some of its gates.
Dennis Cary, United’s senior vice president for marketing, said the airline would charge for the in-flight service but had not yet determined what the cost would be. “We’re certainly aware of what the mental price points are for our customers,” he said.
Lufthansa, which offers Wi-Fi on many of its international flights, charges a flat fee of $29.95 for an entire flight or $9.95 for a half-hour.
Major domestic airlines like United are trying to find new sources of revenue and rein in costs. Many are cutting back on perks or charging for things that used to be free, including food. American Airlines eliminated pillows from coach on its domestic flights last year, prompting Northwest and Delta to follow suit.
More high-tech amenities have traditionally been a marketing tool of low-fare carriers like JetBlue, which offers in-flight DirecTV service at every seat and is now installing XM Satellite Radio in its planes. Song, the low-fare subsidiary of Delta, offers a touch-screen audiovisual system with on-demand movies, video games and music.
United, a unit of the UAL Corporation, said it was not reacting to competitors but responding to what its customers have said they want. “Regardless of the competitive landscape, it’s something we have heard loud and clear from our customers,” Mr. Cary said.
By Jeremy W. Peters