by Michael J. Shapiro | February 01, 2008

Sky-High Wi-Fi

This past December, JetBlue became the first U.S. domestic airline to launch inflight Wi-Fi services aboard one of its planes, dubbed BetaBlue. The BetaBlue aircraft is equipped with a wireless network that offers free customized versions of both Yahoo! Mail and Yahoo! Messenger to laptop users, as well as e-mail access to passengers traveling with BlackBerry 8820 or Curve 8320 smart phones.

JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV provides the wireless coverage and likely will add more Internet-related features in the near future, according to a company spokesperson. The airline will collect customer feedback on BetaBlue over the next several months before developing a timeline for rolling out the technology to the rest of its fleet.

Meanwhile, inflight Wi-Fi will be on the menu this year on American Airlines, Virgin America and Alaska Airlines, if all goes according to plan. American and Virgin both intend to begin testing Aircell’s wireless broadband network within the next couple of months.

For its part, Aircell is promising a high-speed Internet connection as well as VPN access and e-mail service, accessible via any Wi-Fi-enabled laptops or PDAs. Virgin America’s aircraft also will offer e-mail and chat service through the seatback entertainment systems.

Alaska Airlines, perhaps in consideration of Microsoft’s connectivity-loving minions in the Pacific Northwest, intends to pilot broadband service with provider Row 44 on one of its planes this spring, with an eye toward rolling out the service on a larger scale later this year and aboard the whole fleet by the end of 2009.

What will passengers pay for all this? While JetBlue’s service should remain free for the foreseeable future, connectivity on other airlines -- which aim to provide more robust connections with more bandwidth -- will come at a price, as yet to be determined. An American spokesperson says Aircell, not the airline, will set the price, which will apply throughout the aircraft and should be about what customers pay to get online at most Wi-Fi hotspots -- in the $10 range.

A Moving Experience

Airport transportation provider SuperShuttle is claiming to have improved efficiency on the ground by implementing “delivery-optimization software” called Auto Routing, co-developed with business-process solutions company Profit Point and location-intelligence technology provider Pitney Bowes MapInfo.

According to SuperShuttle, Auto Routing reduces the gap between pick-up times, as well as the amount of time customers spend on vans and overall airport turnaround time. What’s more, an entire day’s route allegedly can be mapped out in less than a minute, a process that otherwise can take a dispatcher four to eight hours. (SuperShuttle says its managers and dispatchers now can focus more on customer-service issues.)

Hail Me a Pod

London’s Heathrow Airport has begun construction on an entirely new form of ground transportation, a set of electrically powered pods called the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) System. Each of the 18 low-energy, driverless vehicles will seat up to just four passengers as well as their luggage, and will travel on a dedicated guideway.

Benefits of these futuristic vehicles will include zero local emissions, about 50 percent better energy efficiency than typical buses and almost no wait time for passengers.

The initial phase of the US$49.7 million project, for which more than two miles of “track,” or guideway, are planned, is slated to open in 2009 and will provide transport between the business parking lot and Heathrow’s new Terminal 5, due to open next month.

In the future, Heathrow officials plan to extend the PRT network across the airport as well as to other urban locations.