Charter operators embrace Wi-Fi

Business Jet Traveler » October 2011
A slow connection that pretty much limits you to e-mail qualifies as Wi-Fi. M
Saturday, October 1, 2011 - 6:00am

You can get it at the coffee shop, on your smartphone, even in coach on an airliner. So why is it so difficult to get Wi-Fi on the jet you charter? One reason is that most chartered aircraft still lack broadband access.

The good news is that getting Wi-Fi on a charter flight is becoming easier. The pace of aftermarket installations is accelerating as demand rises and prices of hardware and service fall. Meanwhile, newer aircraft with factory-installed Wi-Fi are slowly joining the charter fleet. So if you haven't yet taken a charter flight with Wi-Fi, you may do so soon.

Here's what you need to know about this technology.

What it is: "Wi-Fi" commonly means generic high-speed or broadband connectivity for surfing the Web, downloading entertainment, exchanging email and documents, live streaming and the like.

But Wi-Fi and broadband aren't synonymous on an aircraft; the jet needs both an appropriate Wi-Fi system and a service plan that provides the required bandwidth and speed. After all, a connection to a first-generation Iridium satellite system with a top speed of 2.4 kbps (kilobytes per second)–which pretty much limits you to email–qualifies as Wi-Fi. Make sure the Wi-Fi you want is the Wi-Fi you get.

Where it is: Wi-Fi access can basically be divided into two realms–the U.S. and everywhere else. In the U.S., most Wi-Fi-equipped aircraft use Aircell's terrestrial-based network. Aircell, headquartered in Bloomfield, Colo., holds exclusive authorization from the FCC and FAA to use cellular frequencies for airborne communication. (Airlines use Aircell's Gogo Inflight Internet system to provide broadband access in the U.S.) You don't have to close your laptop for takeoff on a charter flight as you do on a scheduled airline, but the Aircell system doesn't guarantee usage below 10,000 feet, so you won't have connectivity at all times aboard the aircraft on the Aircell system.

International airborne broadband access relies on the Immarsat satellite network. It supports SwiftBroadband connectivity that offers speeds up to 432 kbps. Some jets use the earlier and less robust Swift 64 (as in 64 kbps) system for their Wi-Fi, which is more akin to dial-up than wireless access. As Immarsat is satellite-based, connectivity is always available. However, SwiftBroadband is slower than Aircell's terrestrial network.

Many Wi-Fi-equipped aircraft that fly in U.S. and international airspace have both Aircell and Immarsat connectivity, and the connection switches to the most advantageous network automatically. If you're flying to Mexico, Bermuda or another international destination from within the U.S. and you want Web access for the entire flight, confirm that the jet has a connection to the Immarsat network.

Who offers it: Some charter providers now make Wi-Fi capability part of their product pitch. XOJet made a splash last year with its "Why Fly without Wi-Fi?" campaign, touting its all-wired fleet of Challenger 300 and Citation X jets. Some brokers have access to the XOJet fleet and use the "WFwoWF" logo on their Web sites.

Your regular charter provider is probably tracking Wi-Fi-enabled charter aircraft these days, because demand for onboard access is growing. But while you'll find the occasional light jet or turboprop with Wi-Fi aboard, there aren't many small or even midsize jets in the charter market with Wi-Fi, and your chances of finding a Wi-Fi-equipped jet of any size are lower in the Midwest U.S. than on either coast, reflecting demand.

"We're seeing an increase in charter customers asking if the aircraft is Wi-Fi-equipped," said David Rimmer of ExcelAire, a charter operator in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. Meanwhile, Toby Batchelder at Minneapolis' Elliott Aviation reported, "We have yet to receive our first request from a charter client wanting Wi-Fi connectivity."

What it costs: Some providers bundle the cost of Web access into the charter price, so there is no separate usage fee. Others charge a flat rate, which can run $8 per minute. Still other charter companies charge by the megabyte. Aircell, Arinc and other broadband-service providers now offer products that track usage, allowing charter operators to bill you based on the amount of data you download.

Tools like Arinc's usage calculator let you estimate the megabytes required for a variety of applications on a laptop or smartphone. (An hour of video streaming on a laptop uses some 180 MB, and Arinc charges about $5 to $7.50 per MB, so check out the fee structure before you commence surfing.)

Chartering Out Your Own Jet? Maybe You Should Install Wi-Fi

If you own a business jet that's on a Part 135 charter certificate, you may be wondering whether you should install Wi-Fi to make your aircraft more attractive to charter customers. If your goal is to earn back the investment through increased charter revenues, the answer is no, experts say. Today's lowest-cost Wi-Fi installation will set you back about $120,000, far more than you can recoup through a bump in the number of charter hours your airplane flies. Still, you can expect to see increased charter demand after the installation, so if you've been considering Wi-Fi for yourself anyway, the potential for added revenue might give you another reason to proceed.

There's another situation where installing Wi-Fi for the charter market may make sense. Charter operators have become picky about the aircraft they manage and place on their charter certificate since the economic downturn chilled demand for charter flights. Having Wi-Fi aboard could make the difference between a good operator taking your aircraft under management or declining the opportunity.

"We are actively pursuing airplanes with Wi-Fi and other amenities, because that is what is desired by the customer," said Andy Priester, president and COO of Chicago-based Priester Aviation.

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