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Matt Marquez & Kiran Sood/MEDILL

Thirteen flights between New York and California will carry United's Wi-Fi test service.

United begins offering wireless but Chicagoans lukewarm to service

by Kiran Sood and Matt Marquez
Jan 15, 2009


Photo courtesy of American Airlines

Fliers can surf the Internet, check e-mail, and access corporate virtual private networks on Aircell's Gogo Wi-Fi service.

United Airlines, a subsidiary of UAL Corp., is hoping Wi-Fi service at 10,000 feet will attract fliers unwilling to lose a few hours of productivity, but many Chicagoans say they would rather pick up a magazine than a wireless signal.

Chicago-based United Airlines announced Wednesday that it will test the market for in-flight Internet with service on 13 planes flying between New York and California starting the second half of this year. Aircraft flying into and out of Chicago will not carry the service until United assesses customer feedback, said United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski.

“Having Wi-Fi access on board is something that [customers] have told us is the key to making their flights more productive and enjoyable,” United Airlines Senior Vice President and Chief Customer Officer Dennis Cary said in a statement.

Aircell LLC's Gogo Inflight Internet service will turn United aircraft into flying wireless hot spots for $12.95 a flight. Fliers can pay for the service on land or in the air, where they can hop on laptops to surf the Internet, check e-mail, instant message, or access corporate virtual private networks.

United is the latest airline to offer wireless service after American Airlines Inc., a subsidiary of AMR Corp., Delta Air Lines Inc., and Virgin America Inc. began offering the service last year. All four airlines use the same technology created by Aircell, a developer in airborne communications.

But many Chicagoans say they prefer to go low-tech during flights.

“There was probably a time in the past when I would have used it,” said finance manager Tom Golec, 54. “Now, I want to sit down and I don’t want to work. I want to nap and maybe read a magazine.”

Dennis Coyle, 27, said that people are already connected everywhere else and two hours in a plane could be endured without wireless access. He added that he might be interested in the service on overseas flights.

Despite the lukewarm reactions from Chicagoans, United might be encouraged by the results seen by California-based Virgin America, which introduced Internet service on its flights in November and plans to extend the service to its entire fleet of 28 aircraft by the middle of next year.

“We have had much better uptakes than we even thought we would,”, especially on transcontinental flights,” said spokeswoman Abby Lunardini. “Wi-Fi is a big draw."

Lunardini estimated that up to 25 percent of customers on a single flight will pay for the service.

Darwin Po, 33, said he isn't interested in paying the $12.95 fee for Wi-Fi service, but he thinks United could still do well by including Internet service on its Chicago flights.

“Chicago is a big city, there’s a lot of people that are tech savvy and would want that access on their plane ride,” he said.