American and AirCell follow-up interview

I had a great conversation with American Airlines’ Doug Backelin, manager of in-flight communication and technology; I wanted to amplify Glenn Fleishman’s piece from earlier this week. We talked at some length about American’s plan to deploy AirCell‘s technology for a 2008 test. Doug emphasized that the 2008 test is just that– a test to see how well the equipment works in production, how it integrates with the airplanes, and how customers respond to it.

My first question was why American thought that this system would be more successful than Boeing’s Connexion effort.

Doug was the AA marketing lead for the Connexion rollout, so he had some interesting insights. United, American, and Delta were supposed to be the US launch customers for Connexion, but for various reasons (mostly related to profitability, or lack thereof) none could follow through on their deployment commitments. AirCell’s per-aircraft equipment costs are lower, and their service costs should be lower because they’re not using satellite bandwidth, which is very expensive. (Note that Row44 is offering a satellite-based system that they claim is higher-bandwidth and lower-cost than Connexion, and they offer much-lower per-aircraft installation costs.)

American believes that the cost of the service will be attractive enough to get their frequent business travelers “excited” about the service; although Doug didn’t say so explicitly, I expect them to experiment with various price plans as part of the 2008 test. The target market for the service is obviously frequent business travelers, but Doug cited the increasing frequency of leisure travelers who take WiFi-enabled smartphones, laptops, or other devices (go Nintendo DS!) with them on trips.

I asked why transcontinental flights were their initial testbed, and the answer turned out to be simple. Doug said, “This is based on fleet type– we have 15 767-200s, and we’re installing on all of them. These fly our premium transcontinental routes, like JFK-LAX, and they have a high concentration of frequent business travelers.” Simple enough. He noted that the system, if fielded, will be deployed across all American-operated domestic flights: that means no American Eagle or other RCC aircraft will be included.

Next, I asked a question of great interest to frequent travelers. We already have to hear enough people talking incessantly on cell phones on the ground (even in places where they’re not welcome!)

The original message I got with the press release said that no voice applications. would be supported. I asked why this was, and Doug’s reply was simple: they want to preserve a quiet cabin environment. John Fitzsimmons, a PR rep for AirCell, confirmed to me that AirCell will be blocking common VoIP services for “social reasons” rather than technical ones (which on a personal level I deeply appreciate– ed.) Doug said, “Definitely for the test, we’ll offer data services only. AIrCell has the ability to block VoIP, which they intend to do. We’re working out some things with AirCell to see what’s allowed and not allowed, and AirCell is looking at blocking bandwidth-hogging applications.” (I have a call in to AirCell to ask about the technical details of how they plan to do this.)

Doug highlighted two things I hadn’t thought of before. First, American is the launch customer for AirCell; other airlines can certainly sign up with them, but American’s agreement specifies that they’ll be the first deployment. This gives AA a potentially very large advantage. Second, American already has more power ports in their aircraft than any other US carrier. The ability to plug in and work from JFK all the way to LAX is definitely appealing (especially if you carry a MacBook Pro, which has crappy battery life– ed.)

AirCell will manage and operate the service; they’ll handle billing and technical support. There won’t be any onboard technical support (unless you happen to get a really savvy flight attendant). As Glenn noted, it would be a slam-dunk for AirCell to partner with aggregators like Boingo; John confirmed that such partnerships were “under discussion”.

Overall, I’m excited to see this service, although as Doug kept reminding me, it’s just a test. It’s too early to predict what costs, service levels, or customer satisfaction will look like, either for the test or for a potential live rollout, but I’ll be watching closely to see what happens in the future.

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